Youth Education, Sports Icons and Community Leadership

For as long as I can remember the need to focus on school and the cultivation of a positive attitude has been proclaimed from the hill tops but has sadly only been embraced by a few in the trenches.

Today, it’s all about being “cool” or “hip.” It’s about presenting the right “image”, about being able to impress the girls or one’s peers. It’s about making the team, about being the coolest looking player on the basketball court or football field, the dude with the snazzy haircut or braids, or gangster style tattoo, or Fubu outfit, or pricey Nike trainers, or gold chains, or rings, or saggy pants, or sports car.

Of course girls aren’t immune, they too are enticed with “bribes” of good times and pregnancy! But it is mostly our boys – the next generation of Black men – that are in real and in some cases mortal danger. It might be an overstatement to say that sports can be seen as a new form of mental and physical slavery. But is it? It’s probably true to say that because it is attractive and associated with stardom, that sports exerts a powerful influence on our youth and that in some respects its influence is insidious.

Okay you say, let’s keep things in proper perspective. No point scare mongering right? After all it’s only a game. And can we really offload this sports thing onto the media moguls, sports magnates or fashion houses? Accepted, they do have the power and the influence but aren’t we the ones who willingly purchase their products, their services and who allow ourselves to be used?

As powerful as the media is; as seductive as the lure of instant success through Nike trainers or an NBA or NFL contract might appear, the reality is that most parents and children are not caught up by the hype or fooled by the lies. In other words, the choice is ours. And many of us have taken a stand against the enticements of sport realizing that one Michael Jordan, or Venus or Serena Williams, or Tiger Woods does not an entire generation make.

The overwhelming majority of young black males who rally to the call of the sports and fashion media are drawn either to basketball or football. Almost undoubtedly these are the “coolest” sports and the black presence is obvious. The few players who, either because of their performance or earnings (the two usually go together), make it into the superstar leagues are the new emblems of success and have become the role models of every young black male who fancies his chances and sees sports as an easy ticket out of the ghetto, the classroom, or the boring life dictated by those of his parents’ generation.

What I find most worrying is the way in which the educational opportunities of many young black males are seemingly being hijacked. Of course, those who make it into the professional ranks realize the importance of a scholarship and a college education. But the stories of cooked grades and stars who can barely read or write are too real to dismiss as fantasy.

But, perhaps more important even than this, is the “easy believism” that may be paralyzing or otherwise infecting our community through our children. Hey, they say and think, you don’t have to work too hard. Just play a little basketball. Don’t worry about school. There’s nothing wrong with practicing that jump shot all day at the park. Homework? What’s that?

Forget it, who needs grades anyway? Just work on those Harlem Globetrotter skills, slam, dunk, dribble, don’t pass, drink your milk and Oreo cookies and think of Michael Jordan’s success. No problem. You’re gonna make it!

And my prayers are with you. But the reality is that you probably have a better chance of making it to the White House and appointing an all-black cabinet as you do of becoming the next Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, or any of the other currently top-rated basket ball stars.

Get real.

And that’s the problem; the cloud of unreality that has colored our thinking and blinded our vision. And, unless we wake up and soon, our collective blindness may consign our children to the career ghetto with no education, limited opportunities, on a train going nowhere fast. And you don’t have to think too hard about the usual passageway from here to drugs and the criminal justice system.

Most of us recognize and accept that these last two are tearing many communities apart and we regularly hear individuals speaking out against the cancer of crack cocaine or the unwarranted numbers of black men behind bars. We rightly recognize these “truths” as being evidence that perhaps all is not right with our society. But the possibility that slipping educational standards and the promotion of an easy path to success may be the real modern-day curse of our children has yet to be trumpeted from the hilltops by our politicians, community leaders or conscientious media personalities.

If they are speaking about it, then they must be whispering. Either that or I’m slowly becoming deaf! Of course, not all sports stars are jocks and it would be a terrible disservice to the able, gifted, and aspiring among them to say as some might that most athletes are nothing more than kids with too much money and too little sense for their own good. While the stereotype remains popular, again largely because of the media’s focus and misrepresentation, it is largely untrue.

There are many young, bright, articulate, educated, conscious young male and female athletes who are serving as positive role models for the next generation. However, it’s unfortunate that interviews with these individuals or real-time media representations of their lives off the court or field are few and far between. It’s so much easier to focus on their sporting talent and promote their star quality. After all that’s what sells tickets and increases the value of the individual to the promoter, owner, manager, coach, or television network.

For all the positive qualities that a Michael Jordan may exude, and for all the speed with which selected individuals are catapulted onto the world stage and transformed sometimes overnight into American icons, how many of your sons or daughters do you really believe will ever have an opportunity to achieve the same degree of success?

If your answer is one in a million, then you understand the stark reality. The reality is that the media allows relatively few players to rise to the top. As with Hollywood, it’s much easier to work with a single hero. The same formula is followed to some degree in the sports world.

The script is written; the actors assembled and only one athlete at a time can play a leading or superstar role.

Is it any wonder then that sports “stars” almost routinely look to Hollywood, product endorsements or the music industry for further development of their careers? But, let’s give credit where credit is due.

There are some real success stories out there. In most cases, the silent and the quiet who shun media attention, and who focus on their families, their careers and their futures in that order are not usually the stuff of which legends are made. You won’t find such individuals being touted in the media. And there are other stars who, having gained a certain notoriety by living up to the stereotype, have gone on to make a success of their lives and business accomplishments.

Magic Johnson is perhaps one example. It was back in November 7, 1991 that the sports world was rocked by the announcement that Magic had the HIV virus. The news was shocking. This was at a time when for many HIV was equivalent to certain death. Now, a decade later Magic is a significant force in business with a reported $500 million business portfolio.

Many communities are the richer for such efforts and no one can take away from these public successes or the significance of these acts of entrepreneurial magic. However, I always find myself asking, when confronted with such tales of success and material wealth, how much more could our stars and leaders be doing by way of sponsoring scholarship programs or linking their names, talents and wealth to charter schools, colleges and universities, after-school care programs, mentoring programs, summer camps, space camps, foreign language learning schemes, cultural exchange programs, computers in schools, science and technology initiatives, hospitals, clinics, fair rent housing development schemes, libraries, urban renewal initiatives. The list is almost endless and the benefits would extend far beyond the black community.

But how do I know that they aren’t investing in such things? Just because we don’t hear about it doesn’t mean they ain’t? Right? Pardon the grammar but the point is well made. Perhaps they are doing all this but no one is talking. After all isn’t this what the Bible encourages when it speaks of humility and the left hand not letting the right hand know what it’s doing? Well how come we hear so much about the supposed wealth of individual stars and so little about the acts of “good.”?

Surely, declaring these good works is a potent way to be an example.

I mean, let’s be realistic, if nobody knows what these individuals are doing, how can we be expected to say “Hey, that brother or that sister is focusing on something positive, or investing their time and money in building the community, in our future, in our schools, in learning? How can they serve as potent role models unless we SEE them playing the role?

How?

The way I see it, until we begin to see more visible examples of such investments in people and communities we’re all wasting our time. Unless we see these institutions and edifices being built, arising from the ashes of our decaying communities so to speak, until there are conscious, vocal and repeated statements of support for the building of lasting institutions that are geared to improving the minds of our children and keeping them healthy and in school then even the success of a Magic Johnson, or a Michael Jordan may be taken as no more than the largesse of a rich individual who may be simply throwing his surplus cash around in blind imitation of other wealthy folks.

While no athlete or media star is under an obligation to support public works and they could very well invest their hard-earned cash elsewhere or live lavishly we all know that many do support some of the initiatives that I’ve outlined above and that they do so through privately established trusts or channels of investment.

The likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, and Whoopi Goldberg among others have long been associated with positive if not always public acts of kindness. Well, now may be the time to come out of the closet.

The point I’m making is that the dangers are so great that what we need to do now is mount a public campaign, to wage a public war on the apathy of our kids and their acceptance of second-rate grades. As athletes and stars we need to start telling and showing them by the way we walk, talk and invest our money that education is important. We need to be telling them that there’s more to life than basketball, or football, or overpriced trainers, or MTV, or gangster rap, or Hollywood, or video games, or fully loaded convertible sports car, or the latest prison hand-me-down fashions, or ribbed condoms, or gold chains, or reefers, or smack, or crack cocaine, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or gang banging, or getting pregnant at age fifteen, or becoming a father before you’re old enough to drive, or hanging out, or jailhouse tattoos, or multiple body piercing, or even the “cool” walk.

Whoa!

Is there anything left that I don’t like and want to get rid of?

Or am I saying that there’s some natural association between this litany of supposed negatives and professional sports? The answer is of course no. The fact that some sectors of the media continue to make this association is tragic and dangerous.

The fact that many young people themselves make the connection is perilous. The only point I’m making is that in the balancing act of life it appears that education and lasting career development continue to be challenged by the litany of material and emotional goods some of which I’ve identified above.

But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about going back to the way things were when George Washington was President (actually, they weren’t so good then). Or back to the fifties when men were men and women were women (yeah right), or a period before there were drugs on the street and television had yet to be invented. This isn’t about going back to an unreal time when every child got perfect grades, there was no fun, no sports, no soda and everyone wore gray uniforms.

Rather, this is about coming together and deciding what it is we want for our children. It’s about taking a long hard look at the reality of the world in which we live. It’s about recognizing that many of our children are being left behind. It’s about accepting that many of our young men and women – our children – are losing out on the American Dream. Their minds and their bodies are being sapped of all energy. Commitment and effort are being replaced by a desire for easy returns, usually with little output.

The dangers of a continued focus on life as a trip down easy street are obvious, although not so obvious as to have drawn the attention of every politician in the country. Every parent and citizen with even a passing concern for the future should be demanding that something be done. More importantly, each of us should be looking out for the kids in our care, for the kids on our block, in our school, in our churches, mosques and synagogues, in our boys and girls clubs, at the local Y’s, hanging out on the street corners.

We should also be looking out for all the others out there. Sport has its place in our society. Basketball, football, and baseball, along with many other sports, capture our collective attention. We’re a nation of sports lovers. And that’s all right. The combination of skills, artistry, rivalry, strategy, tactics, techniques, personalities and drama is interesting, sometimes even exciting.

Sports may even help get us through the week and give us something on which to pin our hopes (the fortunes of “our” team) or, increasingly, the hopes of our children. For many the fascination is innocent enough for what can be harmful about little league baseball or a friendly competition, or my son playing basketball a couple of hours several nights each week, or following the fortunes of his favorite team or players by television or fanzine?

The answer is nothing, so long as the fascination is measured and balanced against the need to invest time in other creative pursuits and, above all, in education. Learning must count for something today. Look at the efforts of other communities. Recent immigrants from India, from Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia are linking their future success to the classroom. Other communities would do well to take note.

If education is important today, it will be even more important tomorrow.

We must therefore give our children every possible opportunity. Accompany them to the game, applaud their successes, tend to their occasionally broken spirits or bodies, and give them every support possible for sports can help round them out as individuals.

However, we should also encourage them to keep everything in perspective and resist the tendency that some of us may have to cast ourselves in the role of aspirant coach, referee or parent to a prospective superstar.

Digest the fact that, nine times out of ten neither you nor your child will make it. Did I say nine times out of ten? Add a few zeros to the nine and you’ll be closer to the real ratio between the dream and the reality.

But even for that very small minority who consider themselves specially gifted or blessed and who are determined, come hell or high water, to challenge the statistics and make it into the first tier ranks of professional sports, the point must still be made:

Maximum effort and educational success are non negotiable.