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Being honest about and to athletes

by M. Rick Turner

Having raised three children (a daughter and two sons) who are
currently Division I student athletes (basketball), having been
involved in sports practically all of my life, and having worked as an
educator for the past twenty-five years, I have been intimately
involved in the counseling and advising of student athletes and their
parents — particularly African American students. I also have worked
closely with coaches and athletic administrators at several
institutions.

These experiences — and my strong advocacy and love for students
and athletics — compel me to share my thoughts on the issues of crime
and antisocial behavior in intercollegiate sports.

Although statistics show that college athletes aren’t involved in
crime or antisocial behavior any more than other people their age, it
has become quite apparent that we as a university community must
address this behavior now. We can no longer merely slap these athletes
on the wrist or suspend them until practice begins. Serious steps must
be taken to implement creative, preventive solutions to this problem
that threatens to cause irreparable damage both to student athletes and
to our institutions.

First of all, we need to ask questions. What do we know about the
student athletes we are recruiting? Have we been so focused on their
athletic talents that we have overlooked other important
characteristics, such as attitude, citizenship, and personal
responsibility? What are our expectations of these young men and women?
Do we want them to graduate or merely to maintain their athletic
eligibility? What is and should be the role of the student athletes’
families? How do we get coaches to really care about the academic part
of student athletes’ lives?

Of course, student athletes are ultimately responsible for what
happens to them on the field or court as well as both in and outside of
the classroom. They must develop an interest in going beyond
maintaining eligibility and begin to focus on getting a quality
education.

But all, we need to be honest about the issue of student athletes’
overall preparation and about the attitudes they bring with them. We
cannot continue to pretend that these young people who have been
singled out as “special” all of their lives do not also have “special”
needs. The fact that they are teenagers and young adults with two
full-time jobs — as both students and athletes — should tell us that
we need to provide them with quality resources that other students
might not need.

African American athletes often feel that no one really cares about
their academic experiences. Many feel that as long as they are eligible
to play, everything is fine. Maintaining eligibility sometimes means
selecting courses and majors they don’t really care about.
Consequently, too many athletes don’t take their classes seriously and
no one demands otherwise. Attending class should be mandatory; often
it’s not.

It is obvious that collegiate athletics, particularly football and
basketball, are big business. When a former University of Virginia
(UVA) football player donates $25 million to upgrade the football
stadium, we should ask questions like how much, if any, of this money
will go toward providing academic support services for student
athletes? And how much will go toward the hiring of more African
American coaches, administrators, and staff?.

Recently, I have had conversations with athletes; with coaches from
the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, and Big East; and with William
Rhoden, a New York Times sports writer. We all agree that if colleges
and universities are to successfully curb the antisocial behavior of a
growing number of their athletes, they must begin by hiring more
African American administrators, staff, and coaches.

Where they exist, African American coaches must demand excellence
and serve as role models for young men and women not only on the
field/court but also both in and outside of the classroom. These
coaches must understand the reasons for their presence at predominately
White institutions. They are there not just because they are good, but
also because 60 percent to 70 percent of the athletes in the
revenue-generating sports are Black. Recognizing this, Black coaches
have an obligation to see that African American students are more than
just a source of income for universities.

Families of student athletes must play a larger role too. Beyond
clapping and cheering from the bleachers, they must make a conscious
effort to work closely with other families and the athletic departments
to find solutions to this most grievous problem.

It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that every effort is made
to see that African American student athletes experience the best of
both the academic and the athletic worlds during their collegiate
years. We can do no less for our students and our children.

DR. M. RICK TURNER Dean, Office of African American Affairs, University of Virginia

Father of: Tarik Turner, recent graduate, St. John’s University,
major — history, 3.4 GPA; mandifu Turner, junior, George Washington
University, major — engineering, 3.1 GPA; Hajj-Malik Turner,
sophomore, University of Louisville, major — undeclared 3.5 GPA

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