Election sends right message to young athletes
Over the last few days, black athletes and coaches have lined up to say that Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election proves to young African-Americans that anything is possible.
They should have taken it a step further.
What they should have said, in so many words, was:
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"To the kids who are dreaming of fame and fortune in sports: You have almost no chance of making it to the pros, and your odds of getting a college athletic scholarship are incredibly slim. Don't delude yourself. You're not the exception. You're most likely the rule.
"Play sports for the lessons they teach you about teamwork and effort and life. All those things are transferable to the real world. But there's only one LeBron James, and you're not him. Put down the ball once in a while and pick up a book, the way Obama did. You'll go far."
Deflating? Probably. Unfair? Maybe a little.
But absolutely real.
For too long, too many blacks have looked upon sports and entertainment as the only avenues to achieve huge success. Aided and abetted by coaches, parents and other relatives, they cling to the fantasy of impending wealth and stardom.
In a way, it makes sense. What worked for someone who looks like me and comes from a similar background as me will therefore work for me.
But it doesn't make it any less heartbreaking to watch.
What an opportunity there is now, with Obama preparing to move into the White House. Will kids look up from their pickup games long enough to notice? Will they start to reach higher than a basketball rim?
"What I like about Obama is that, even though his situation might be different from theirs, he did come from humble beginnings," said Louis Harrison Jr., a University of Texas professor who does research on race and athletics. "He wasn't born with a silver spoon. Hopefully, kids will connect with that and see that, hey, here's an opportunity to do something really great, and you don't necessarily have to run fast or jump high to do it."
If a kid comes up short of his goal of becoming a college athlete, his choices might be limited, especially if he hasn't paid attention to school.
If he comes up short of his goal of becoming president of the United States, lots of good can come from the pursuit. Maybe he becomes a doctor, lawyer or businessman. Maybe he makes a nice life for himself and his family.
All of this is coming from your resident white guy, and as such should be taken in that context. I can't begin to understand what it's like to grow up poor with the incredibly difficult challenges many blacks face.
But having just been through the college selection business with one of my children, I know that universities desperately want to increase the number of minority students in their institutions. Scholarships and aid abound for African-Americans.
The problem is that, for many of those kids, the only model they have for going to college is the sports-scholarship model.
Now we have a basketball-playing, soon-to-be leader of the free world who is of mixed racial heritage. The fact he's not like most politicians—the fact he can dribble a basketball without tripping over his feet—has led to all sorts of prose about the president-elect's hoops abilities. But if you have seen his jump shot, you know a basketball career was never in the cards for him.
The important thing is that, somewhere along the way, either he recognized his athletic shortcomings or someone convinced him of them. He went on to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and the rest is world history.
Sports are not a dead end. They offer us an education of their own. One lesson is that you can't always get what you want. What you do with your life once that lesson sinks in is what really matters. The sooner that lesson arrives for most of us, the better.
Sometimes I hear college coaches talk to children about the importance of academics, and it rings hollow. One look at the graduation rates of college basketball and football programs tells you all you need to know. According to one study, 33 schools in last year's NCAA men's basketball tournament graduated at least 70 percent of their white players. Only 19 schools graduated that many black players.
Lots of kids have been too busy dribbling a basketball or running a football to realize that anything in life is possible. They didn't need Obama's election to tell them that. But it helps. Now all they need to do is look up.