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Dividing Line

Trash Talk on Sports: Clinton should warn kids not to bet on a pro career

By Jack E. White

TIME magazine

(TIME April 27) -- I'm no fan of Bill Clinton's so-called initiative on race, which assumes that we would all get along better if we just threw ourselves into a White House-led conversation on the subject. If there's anything this overheated issue does not need, it's more touchy-feely rhetoric and posturing from Washington. There are no subjects that we debate more incessantly--and pointlessly--than race relations, unless it's sports and politics. Toss the three together on cable TV in an attempt to grab a big audience of sports-addicted males, and the result can be vacuity on an Olympian scale.

That's why the presidential town hall on race and sports, broadcast by ESPN last week, was so disappointing. The discussion rarely rose above the level of sports-talk radio. A few urgent topics--such as how the millions of dollars earned by black and Latino pro athletes can be converted into durable economic development for their communities--were briefly touched upon. But most of the exchange was, well, inside baseball--so narrowly focused on the inner workings of big-league college and professional sports that any lessons for the larger society were left unclear. How, for example, increasing the number of white cornerbacks in the National Football League will improve race relations quite frankly beats the hell out of me. What we need--and did not get from this panel--is a real discussion about the ways that playing sports, not just obsessing on them, can be used to transmit values that advance racial justice and equity. For that kind of talk you need educators and philosophers, not just coaches, jocks, ex-jocks and wannabe jocks who went into politics.

Overlooked in last week's discussion, for example, were the astronomical odds against even a gifted athlete's making it to the major leagues. Far more important than the shortage of black and Latino professional coaches and general managers is the huge surplus of inner-city youngsters who don't think they have to hit the books so long as they can crash the boards, or the opposing quarterback. That self-destructive attitude gets reinforced every time a high school sports star gets special treatment over an A-student classmate; every time a multimillionaire pro like Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell gets off the hook for violent behavior that would cost him his job and get him arrested if he earned his living any other way. It may have something to do with the wide and troubling gap that persists between black and white scores on standardized tests for college admission. Yet we continue to put sports figures on pedestals, paying some of them enough to fund a small-town school system, while we offer few rewards in prestige and applause to youngsters who excel in academics. Indeed, in some black neighborhoods, kids who do well in school are ridiculed for "acting white." Black entertainers Will Smith and Chris Rock have boldly (and hilariously) taken aim at that attitude. Why not the President and his sports panel?

Don't get me wrong. Playing sports can teach important lessons about teamwork and striving, but it offers a career to only a relative handful of athletes. And until we put sports back into perspective, we're playing a sucker's game.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: April 27, 1998

The Currie Riddle
The Priest At The Party
Greens Flip Over Turtles
Dividing Line
The Notebook: He Said, She Said
Spiriting Prayer Into School

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