Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Kevin Ollie's Historic Win Makes a Strong Case for the College Degree. I Hope Our Black Student Athletes Are Paying Attention.

"To be young, gifted and black, oh what a lovely precious dream.To be young, gifted and black, open your heart to what I mean."

Lyric from: To Be Young, Gifted and Black from the album Black Gold
Written By: Weldon Irvine Jr.
Performed By: Nina Simone

Photo of Kevin Ollie courtesy of David Butler II, USA Today Sports

The UCONN Huskies are the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball National Champions, even though this guy's leg says otherwise.

The team from Storrs, CT won its 4th Championship in 15 years as the first 7 seed to do so.

And the historical firsts don't stop there.

Shabazz Napier, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, and Niels Giffey were the first players to play in and win championships as freshmen and then again as seniors and; Kevin Ollie became the first coach to win a championship in his second year as head coach since Steve Fisher.

Here's something else noteworthy about Ollie's win. He is the 4th African-American head coach to win an NCAA title.

On his way to joining the likes of John Thompson, Nolan Richardson and Tubby Smith, Ollie had to outwit the strong championship pedigree chops of Tom Izzo, Billie Donovan and John Calipari. And the results made for a most impressive tournament run.

Pat Forde brilliantly captured the cause for concern regarding the absence of black head coaches on the college basketball sidelines in this Yahoo Sports piece. He writes that like the NFL, the NCAA should make diversity recruiting and hiring a priority.

But if we really want to see more opportunities for the Kevin Ollies of the world to return to their alma maters with visions of NCAA championships dancing in their heads, we have to acknowledge the one obstacle that potentially presents an even bigger challenge to that possibility than good ole boy networks and closed-minded Athletic Directors...

The college degree.

Or more specifically, the lack thereof.

Leading up to last year's tournament I wrote this piece highlighting my thoughts on why we should be doing more to encourage our student athletes, particularly football and basketball players, to see their educational free rides for the valuable compensation packages that they truly are.

Most sports fans have become so sympathetic to the players' humble and sometimes poverty-stricken beginnings and conversely, disgusted with the NCAA's seeming unwillingness to share the wealth with its workhorses that we have bought into the notion that it is OK for these athletes to care very little about that "student" descriptor. While many argue that substantial salaries or profit-sharing should be offered for athletic services rendered, some have deemed it acceptable for talented college athletes to disregard the importance of the opportunity to earn a degree.

College basketball especially with its potential for one and done seasons and statistical predominance of black players, many of whom carry the weight of the hopes and dreams of their families and their neighborhoods on their shoulders, is a breeding ground for this forgoing of academic achievement in exchange for the immediacy of the promise of NBA riches. 

To be a party to that type of derision is a mistake and a glaring one if a kid hopes to be as lucky in his post-college career as Kevin Ollie, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications, has been in his.

And by lucky, I mean lucky enough to play for 12 NBA teams in 13 years. Because luck and success are relative and what they look like, in a league of uncertainty, for LeBron James and Kevin Durant may be very different from what they look like for almost everyone one else with NBA hoops dreams.

The reality is that, from a sheer numbers standpoint, a gifted college basketball player has a better chance of joining the coaching ranks or becoming a doctor or a lawyer than he does of going to the NBA.

But like law school and medical school, most college athletic programs require undergraduate degrees of their coaching candidates and that is where most talented black collegiate bballers, winners their whole lives, having left college early or-with our blessings-having never taken college seriously in the first place will lose out.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be Steve Masielo, and by lucky I mean lucky enough to have a college or university-Manhattan in his case-allow you to keep your head coaching job and finish your degree after an embarrassing turn of events during an attempt to land another head coaching job-in his case University of South Florida-revealed that you misrepresented yourself-though ruled unintentionally so-about having earned a degree in the first place.

Grant Hill was proud enough to reference the historical significance of Ollie's win for African Americans as he summarized his thoughts on his own first, his first Final Four as a member of a broadcasting team. As for Kevin Ollie, while acknowledging the way that Thompson, Richardson and Smith paved for him, he has said that he doesn't necessarily think of himself as a black head coach but simply as a head coach. 

If we want more, black college basketball players to have a chance to make that distinction someday, we can no longer ignore the baccalaureate elephant in the room.