- Roy S. Johnson, Contributing writer, ESPN.com
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To play or not.
To cheer or not.
To celebrate or not.
As I settled in at my daughter's swim meet Saturday afternoon and logged into my PDA, my intent was to tweet on Seahawks-Saints, college hoops and, of course, my kid's races. But that was just about the moment a young man put a bullet through the brain of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as she met with constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson. He shot 19 other innocents before being apprehended. Sadly, six of them died, including a U.S. District Court judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Giffords survived, miraculously and thankfully.
It's cliché to say the shootings diminished the importance of the games, even the swim meet. Of course they did. But the games went on, for the most part.
A basketball game between Stanford and Arizona scheduled for that evening in Tucson was postponed for a day. Everyone else played, cheered and celebrated. And swam.
That's because the shootings also reminded us how important our games are, as well.
How much they help us heal.
One irony of the shootings is that they occurred just as we begin to celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who was gunned down by an assassin more than four decades ago.
Those of us who cover sports often use this occasion to determine whether the arena has realized King's "dream," or even come close. In some ways, the answer is yes. Athletes and coaches are typically measured by the content of their stat sheets, as well as their character. And they are well compensated for it, sometimes beyond all reason.
But in other areas, not so much -- maybe made tangible most significantly by the disparity in graduation rates among white and black college athletes, a gap that is embodied by the teams that played for the national title Monday night. It was recently revealed that Auburn and Oregon, for all their success in building championship-caliber teams, just can't seem to send their African-American athletes into the workforce with college degrees at the same rate they graduate their white athletes.
Auburn, in fact, had the biggest gap among all bowl teams, graduating all of its white players but slightly less than half its black players (49 percent), according to data released by the University of Central Florida. Tigers coach Gene Chizik, when asked about the numbers, told The New York Times the university does a "great job" educating its athletes.
Clearly not all of them, Gene.
The Ducks are even worse at graduating black players, sending barely four in 10 (41 percent) away with degrees. (They graduate 76 percent of white players.)
The survey found five schools among the 70 that participated in FBS bowl games that graduate fewer than 40 percent of black players.
What a nightmare.
These numbers are important because most of the players we watched Monday night -- and watched throughout the painfully long and superfluous bowl season -- won't likely be playing on Sundays when their college eligibility is over. They'll be out here, where we are, searching for work with the rest of America; and without degrees, they'll be less qualified to compete for the most coveted jobs and careers.
In that sense, sports has not only not achieved King's dream but is all but assuring it may never come to fruition.
We paused on Saturday to pray for the victims of the Tucson tragedy, their families, loved ones and colleagues.
Then we embraced our games to help us heal.
Let's also pray that sports, at least someday, will finally embrace Dr. King's dream in the classroom as much as it has on the playing field.
The graduation rates of black players for Auburn, Oregon and other bowl teams are an indication that sports has a way to go to realize Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.