Sunday, April 2, 2017

March Madness: Rooting for Learning!

I’m old enough to remember when college professors made as much as college football coaches. In fact, when I was a boy people liked to say, “Sports builds character.” You don’t hear that much now.

Regardless, I still love sports and have always cheered for the “good guys” if I can figure out who they are. (I’m also a sucker for underdog players and teams.) I remember watching the Texas Western Miners, an all-black college basketball team, battle the Kentucky Wildcats, an all-white opponent, in the 1966 championship game. I wanted the Miners to win—to advance the cause of racial equality, in some small way, through the vehicle of sports.

The Miners prevailed, 72-65.

I’m also old enough to remember how circumscribed women’s roles once were in sports. I vividly recall the 1967 Boston Marathon, when Kathy Switzer registered under the gender neutral name, “K. V. Switzer,” to become the first female to receive an official entry number and racing bib. Then she had to dodge an official who tried to pull her off the course after he realized a “fragile female” was out there “perspiring” with all those men! That’s right. I’m old. So I remember when a lady wasn’t supposed to use the word “sweat.” A real lady perspired.

Now, I always cheer for girls and women in sports.

By this circuitous route we come to the 2017 NCAA Final Fours for both men and women. I still admire the heart shown by those who give their best on the court. I respect what the University of Connecticut women’s basketball program has done to advance the cause of females in sports—and was thrilled to see a highly competitive game Friday, with young women pushing themselves to the limits, working not as individuals but as equal parts on fine teams, blurring lines of racial division, embodying, in my mind, much of the progress made in this country in the last fifty years.

The fact Mississippi State won in overtime, 66-64, on a buzzer beater lofted by the smallest player on the court, 5' 5" Morgan William, added to the pleasure. (I like underdogs!) And the Bulldogs had to work hard to put an end to Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak in the process. Their victory will probably be remembered as the greatest women’s basketball game ever.

I’m not sure which team I’ll be cheering for in the championship game. I do have a favorite on the men’s side, largely because of my love for learning. The four men’s finalists were Gonzaga, South Carolina (both in the Final Four for the first time), Oregon (making its first trip since 1939) and North Carolina (the bluest blooded basketball powerhouse in college sports).

Winning is fun. Learning is more important.

I liked South Carolina most. Frank Martin, who leads the team, is a first-generation Cuban-American (and aren’t immigrants always underdogs), a former high school teacher and coach. Asked this week if he would worry about pressure at the Final Four, he hearkened back to his teaching days at Miami High School, his alma mater in Miami, Florida. “You know what pressure is?” he told reporters. “Thirty-five students, 27 desks, 18 textbooks, and you’ve got to educate ever single kid in that classroom for 180 days.”

If you’ve ever taught you know exactly what Coach Martin meant.

I also caught an interview he gave following an earlier tournament win. Sports Illustrated Kids reporter Max Bonnstetter, 13, noted that South Carolina had clearly won the battle on defense. “When you coach or teach your team defense,” the teen wondered, “what’s more important, technique or attitude?”

As a former teacher, myself, I was hoping Martin would answer in the fashion he did:

“First of all, a lot of respect to you,” he responded. “That’s a heck of a question. I’ve been doing this a long time, and that’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that, that’s a heck of a question. Attitude comes first. We gotta have guys that are gonna believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we do. Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique.”

I thought Martin sounded, in his own way, like every good teacher I ever met. He knew the key to success in large part came down to motivation. In my own classroom, I always prized attitude over talent in students. 

The next day, I ran across something else Martin said. He had scoffed at the idea there was something wrong with kids today. Not at all: “We’ve changed as adults. We demand less of kids. We expect less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about. We’re the ones who’ve changed.” Again, I thought Coach Martin was correct.

So, I was sorry to see his team lose.

Now, with Gonzaga and North Carolina advancing, the focus on learning remains. I hope the Tar Heels lose. Nothing against the young men on the team, who played hard and defeated Oregon, 77-76.  But for me the crux of the matter is still learning. You can learn from sports today, if sports are handled right. You can learn from a demanding coach who pushes you to excel. I learned a similar lesson from drill instructors at Parris Island many years ago. The Marine Corps taught me to push myself physically and mentally in ways I had never known. It was a lesson I carried into my classroom—a lesson which allowed me to pedal a bicycle across the United States twice.

(See: Clyde Barrow on a Bike.”)

Unfortunately, it’s a lesson the University of North Carolina half forgot. For years student-athletes weren’t expected to excel as students.

Only the athlete mattered.

As Michael Powell explained in The New York Times yesterday, North Carolina “remains enmeshed in a scandal of spectacular proportions. Put simply, for two decades until 2013, the university provided fake classes for many hundreds of student athletes, most of them basketball and football players.”

I had delved into the story myself back in January 2014, but was happy to see it hadn’t been completely swept under the court or the turf. At the time an investigation had already led to indictment of a UNC professor, Julius Nyang’oro, head of the African and Afro-American studies department, on charges of fraud. His alleged crime: accepting $12,000 to teach a class that never met.

Not rarely.

Not once. 

Even worse, the course was AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina, which might have opened student-athletes eyes to the exploitation of African-Americans in this country, both times past and times present.

The problem wasn’t limited to
one course. An investigation revealed that there may have been 200 bogus classes, dating back to 1997. Most showed “little or no evidence of any instruction.” At least part of the time AFAM 280 was supposedly meeting, Nyang’oro was traveling in Africa. Nearly half of students enrolled in these classes were athletes. Evidence seemed to show there were 500 cases of unauthorized grade changes. Faculty signatures were routinely forged.

Pressed by
reporters from the Raleigh News & Observer, university officials had finally been forced to look under the academic rocks and all manner of bugs were sent scurrying for cover. AFAM 280 was one of more than 50 African studies classes over five previous years that showed little evidence of actually meeting. Three enticing ghost courses promised student-athletes would learn Swahili. Several others “were disavowed by the instructors listed as teaching them, and the investigation found evidence the handwriting on course documents didn’t belong to them.” Those enrolled wrote papers to be turned in at the end of the semester, but there was little evidence anyone bothered to read them. Grades were good to excellent, averaging better than a B-plus.

The obvious question, then, and still unanswered today, on the eve of the championship game, is, “Who knew about this scheme?” Were coaches complicit? Was Roy Williams? Did administrators look the other way? One colleague told reporters Nyang’oro was simply a scapegoat. “But I am sure there were many people in the athletic department and elsewhere who were aware…the problem was institutional.”

In fact, the problem was financial. Big time college sports meant and continue to mean big time dollars. UNC was content to watch its basketball and football teams pile up wins. The alumni were happy and fat donation checks rolled in. Unfortunately, far too many athletes “earned” meaningless grades. Four or five or six years later, if lucky, they were awarded nearly worthless diplomas. They didn’t learn about blacks in North Carolina. They didn’t study slavery or focus on Jim Crow laws and certainly never learned Swahili. For all the good it did them to enroll in such college classes they might as well have taken courses in Pig Latin.

So, Monday night, I’m rooting for Gonzaga.