I, for one, am proud and glad that it was Professor Paul Hornung who began this year's seminar on college admission policies for elite college athletes. It is a very short seminar, but somebody had to get the ball rolling. It might as well be our own Golden Boy.
Welcome, Professor Hornung. Your paper, "Dumb Jock U., or, U Dumb Jock?" has gone over like gangbusters nationally -- save with faculty, where it went over like cement overshoes. But if they want tenure and know what's good for them, they'll quiet down ... unless they're named Sperber. (And if my name was Sperber, hey, I'd protest, too.)
As you know by now, Prof. Hornung's paper was delivered over a Detroit AM radio station's airwaves this week, which means it's a bit of a surprise that anyone heard it at all. No one would've, if not for its contents. Usually, academic papers are like powerful barbiturates. (That's "sleeping pills," to those few elite athletes out there who are having this read to them by a tutor/translator.) But not in this case.
In his thesis statement, our own Professor Hornung said his alma mater, Notre Dame, should relax its admissions standards in order to get elite athletes -- or, as Prof. Hornung shrewdly calls them (several times, in fact), "the black athlete" -- in order to compete as a national football power.
It was magnanimous and inclusive of Prof. Hornung to do this.
Usually, black males of college age, elite athletes or not, are seen mostly as prison fodder, or on "Cops," or in musical groups, or as inarticulate roadies for music groups, or as rappers, or as rappers who become effete movie stars, or as scowling print ad models.
Some have taken Dr. Hornung to task for his thesis statetement. Some insist he should have said, or meant to say, the elite black athlete. Nobody wants average black athletes around cluttering up the roster and taking up space in college for no good reason.
Still others, such as myself, think Dr. Hornung should have said the elite athlete, with no color descriptor. In a way, it's like beautiful women. You never know what kind of package the talent will come in. Once you see it, you don't care.
After due consideration and a little coaching, Dr. Hornung made that change himself, for clarification's sake. After all, lowering admission standards just to admit the garden-variety black athlete would not be worth the trouble. Those were black athletes -- using the term loosely -- who went to the Prairie View University in South Texas and recently set a record for losing consecutive college football games. There are many black athletes who have body types the sizes of pieces of produce -- pears, grapefruit, zucchinis, and such -- and who have done precious little lately to help the won-loss records at schools like Morehouse, South Florida, Rice, Tulane, Tuskegee, Florida A&M and even Alabama. Oh, a vagrant contributor comes out of this pool occasionally. There are NFL scouts to figure out who they are.
At Notre Dame itself, there are phalanxes of black athletes, and they didn't keep the Irish -- or the Black Irish, as it were -- from having several tattoos stamped on their non-elite heads last year by the likes of Michigan, Southern Cal, Purdue, and many, many others. Or so it seemed to Notre Dame alumni like Dr. Hornung.
Obviously, Dr. Hornung meant that elite athletes should be attracted to, and then admitted to, Notre Dame, and not just the black ones. If the elite ones happen to be black, that's fine by Dr. Hornung, whose favorite running back, outside of himself, is Mr. Gale Sayers. Like Dr. Hornung, Mr. Sayers was a slow starter, academically, who managed to have a rich life, anyway, off the AM band.
Frankly, to get a public airing of his paper, Dr. Honung's implication -- that concessions would have to be made for the limited academic capacities of The Black Athlete -- was a masterstroke. It got the paper discussed nationwide, and on scholarly forums such as "PTI," and "The Dan Patrick Show," where Dr. Hornung, for some odd reason, apologized for making any such implications.
Actually, Dr. Hornung has nothing to apologize for, considering from whence he sprang. Believe it or not, Dr. Hornung was once what is called a "helluva" elite athlete himself; though for some reason, we can't find the records at Notre Dame to show if admission standards were stretched to allow him in.
Let us assume the unthinkable -- that, in fact, they were.
In the immortal words of Governor LePetomaine, the Mel Brooks character in "Blazing Saddles:" "Har-umph, har-umph, har-umph!"
This would not be unusual for elite college athletes, particularly footbll players, of any stripe in any era. It is the "elite athlete" part, not necessarily the "black" or "white" part, that gets them going in this easy-way-in direction, from early on. You see, becoming an elite athlete takes an awful lot of time and work. Not every college athlete can show the industry of Gerald Ford, a Michigander who became President; or Paul Robeson, a Rutgers man who became a lawyer and star of stage and screen; or Byron "Whizzer" White, a Coloradoan who later became a Supreme Court justice; or Alan Page, who followed Hornung at Notre Dame by some few years and then later became a Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice.
Usually, after arduous, time-consuming practices, elite jocks only have strength left to cut the tape off their joints, take a hot shower, drag their carcasses to a bed, perhaps watch an ESPN Top 10 list or highlight package before dropping off; and then on the weekend, study the wildlife at stripper bars, knock back a few brewskies, spit at some chicks, get a few bets down, and that's pretty much it.
The majority falls between these two poles.
One of these, a Mr. Raghib "Rocket" Ismail of Notre Dame, was interviewed by Dan Patrick on ESPN after Dr. Hornung's paper became the subject of the day. Mr. Ismail said it was "dangerous" for Dr. Hornung or anyone else to imply that the two had to be mutually exclusive -- being an elite athlete and knowing in which direction to go to find the lab he's supposed to be in. Myself, personally, I like Mr. Ismail, and always have; he's always shown great social industriousness and character, and academic potential. But I must say, the reason I met him in the first place is because he could run the 40-yard dash in 4.18 and was one of the most exciting football players that Notre Dame has produced. Not counting Dr. Hornung.
But let's forget Notre Dame for a while (as unthinkable as that seems) and move Dr. Hornung's thesis elsewhere, to see how it travels. Let's move it to his home town of Lousville.
Dr. Hornung first became the Golden Boy in Louisville back in the '50s. Again, records are missing, and what there are of them seem to carry the stain of erasures, whiteout and different inks. But Dr. Hornung would readily admit that back in his heady salad days as an elite athlete, he'd sooner crack open a walnut than a book. He'd have looked at you like you were crazy if you suggested otherwise or told him something was wrong with that, or with him.
In fact, Dr. Hornung's great social icebreaker is to say, "I've been on scholarship all my life ... and I've loved every minute of it."
The elite-athlete Golden Boys, of all the so-called "races" and places, have always been thus inclined, and remain so until today.
After much research, we've determined this to be a phenomenon we call: "Human Nature." (Pause for applause; if none, continue.)
Getting back to Louisville, that town was also home at that precise time to one Cassius Marcellus Clay, who is black and was an elite athlete of a sort. He also never met a book he wanted to open. Or, if he did, it wasn't for long, even if ordered to do so by Little Lamb, a man called the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who, come to think of it, wasn't much of a book-cracker-opener, either. This did not suade the man we would know as Muhammad Ali from his calling. He just was no threat to be admitted to Cal Tech or M.I.T., is all. We cannot assign blame for that. Cal Tech or M.I.T. did not further cloud the issue by fielding football or boxing teams, so the matter was fairly cut-and-dried, as far as they were concerned.
Also at that time, a Mr. Johnny Unitas attended, to use the word loosely, the University of Louisville; and later many, many members of the school's famous college basketball team also enrolled. Not having quite the academic reputation of a Cal Tech or M.I.T., how was the University of Lousville going to carry its reputation to the far corners of the contiguous 48? And better, what was it going to do to rid itself of its inferiority complex around the accursed blue-bloods of the University of Kentucky? Others students to attend the school include another Louisville native, one Mr. Hunter S. Thompson, from whom we will no doubt hear later about the contents of this paper.
As an aside, Hunter did pay some sporadic attention to school, through a haze of alkaloids and alcohol; and it is safe to say he was not inspired to do so by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad or Touchdown Jesus. (William S. Burroughs is another matter.)
But, tut-tut, all this takes us away from the University of Louisville's charge. To hold its vast institutional head high, it would play football and basketball, of course. Mr. Unitas' qualifications for the former were that he could throw a football right through a brick wall, and not that he could use a slide rule, or recite "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe.
In fact, Johnny Unitas could be the poster boy for Dumb Jock U., except he was a very nice man, a good man, an admirable man, a man who personified the primal force that became the NFL. Later, Terry Bradshaw came in his image, and was seen as a charter member of Dumb Jock U. (Louisiana Tech, in his case). Bradshaw is seen as academically lacking, even by some members of the tainted black phalanx. Now that'll drive you absolutely crazy. As Gene Hackman's "Mississippi Burning" character put it, "If you ain't better than a n-----, who are you better than?" Food for thought for us all, I'm sure.
One of them, a Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, awoke from a haze of alkaloid-induced euphoria similar to that which enveloped Hunter Thompson long enough to laugh and say, prior to a Super Bowl, that "(Bradshaw) couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A." Bradshaw is still simmering over that remark, and the whole idea of it. If I were Hollywood Henderson, I would not turn my back on Mr. Bradshaw at a party, else I might end up wearing the punchbowl.
In our case study of "Is it Dumb Jock U., or U Dumb Jock?" we are now far afield from the sticking point of The Black Athlete at Notre Dame, aren't we? Patience. We'll get back to it eventually.
First, speaking of Hollywood, let us briefly examine the roles of college football players and elite athletes on the silver screen.
Just last weekend, Joel and Ethan Coen, who are some very smart boys, released a droll movie called "The Ladykillers." Now we don't know if Joel and Ethan played college football or not, but let's assume they didn't. They still have a college football player as one of the title characters in their movie.
In this movie, there is a character, a college football player, an Anglo-American college football player, called Lump Hudson, who is played by Ryan Hurst. Not for nothing is this character called Lump. He makes Karl Childers of "Sling Blade" look like Peter Jennings, or John Dos Passos. Lump brings new meanings to stupid.
The star of "The Ladykillers" is Tom Hanks, who, some 10 years earlier, starred in a movie called "Forrest Gump," about a college football player, again Anglo-American, who is so dumb that his teammates have to point him in the right direction to run. But he runs so fast that they are quite willing to do this for the Roll Tide of Alabama.
Speaking of rolling tide, did Coach Mike Price even go to college?
This is not to mention Ebby Calvin LaLoosh in "Bull Durham," who obviously must have been a college football player until he gave it up to become a minor league baseball player -- sort of like, say, Brad Johnson, or Jay Schroeder, or Drew Henson, or Quincy Carter, or Kenny Kelley, et. al., ad infinitum.
This is also not to mention, oh, a hundred films, starring either Ray Milland, Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne or Dick Powell, in which some big guy in a college football letterman's sweater plays the foolish thick-tongued swain or thick-headed lout who is there for decoration and our amusement. And this was back in the '50s, when there were no black people. I mean, that we knew of.
One essay from that era -- either from The Atlantic Monthly or Harper's Bazaar -- which I always cite in situations like this, is a Richard Hovey effort entitled "Our Illiterate Collegians." Mr. Hovey, a frustrated, would-be, one-time running back and Mr. Touchdown (at least in his own mind, though he'd never admit it), bemoaned the presence of stupid-is-as-stupid-does elite college football players at big-time American universities. He was not talking about black people because, again, these were the '50s, and at the time, they did not exist.
During this era on the silver screen, the elite (read, dumb) athletes competed on the cinematic field for the hand of the lanky Kate Hepburns of the world. But off the field, they existed solely so that the Dick Powells and Spencer Tracys -- and, more lately, the pencil-necks like Alan Alda and wanna-bes like Burt Reynolds; and even more lately, the Tom Cruises -- can make fools of them, and beat them out for the affection of the leading ladies. They exist so that the audience can laugh at them and have someone to root against.
Hollywood has thrown us a few curves. In the 1970s, Bob Altman's "M*A*S*H" included one of the funniest bootleg college football games ever. It starred Fred "The Hammer" Williamson as Dr. Oliver Harmon "Spearchucker" Jones, an ex-collegiate football player and ringer brought in by the 4077th. Dr. Jones also happened to be a black neurosurgeon, long before Johns Hopkins' Dr. Ben Carson. In fact, you might call Dr. Carson the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Would that others would be as prophetic as Ring Lardner Jr. This subversion of the paradigm was invented by Lardner, the screenwriter of this movie, and the offspring of the best sportswriter ever -- present company excepted, of course.
This played against the type that Dr. Hornung shrewdly espouses.
It is rare in that quality.
Finally (and when an academic says "finally," he means there is only an hour, maybe two, left in his presentation, so hang in there!), to complete our study of Dr. Hornung's thesis, let us compare it to that of Dr. Charles Murray and Dr. Richard Hern-something-or-other's famous book called, "The Bell Curve." That book pretty much regulated "blacks" to unholy perdition -- academic and, no doubt, hopefully otherwise -- unfortunates like Alan Page, Paul Robeson, Rocket Ismail and Dr. Oliver Harmon "Spearchucker" Jones notwithstanding. This is what I like about Paul Hornung. He'd much rather be in their company than in the company of a Dr. Charles Murray and Dr. Richard Whatshisname. So do not put Dr. Paul Hornung in the company of such men. He's better than that.
Yours Truly has written a book about some of this already, called "Dark Witness." The first chapter in this book is called, "Why Black People Are So Stupid." It is dedicated to "The Bell Curve" and to Drs. Murray and Herr-What's-His-Name. It is a book of droll good, and occasionally dark, humor. ("Dark Witness," I mean; not "The Bell Curve.") I will leave that book now to its own devices and simply say, from the depths of my ignorant and ungrammatical superstitions, that "God don't like ugly." Leave it at that.
But I believe God loves Paul Hornung. I've met Dr. Hornung on several occasions, and a friendlier, more egalitarian and felicitious individual you've never known. Hornung is the salt of the earth. He's down here on the ground with the rest of us, down here where the rubber meets the road and the world keeps right on spinning.
Some say Dr. Hornung spoke clumsily on the radio. There is no doubt that he has in him, as all the rest of us do, some vestigial form of identification of all black people as athletically gifted as opposed to academically inclined. Just like the Golden Boy himself.
This is comforting, I know; but I, myself, would say that generalities like this are unsound. And annoying people with them is, as Mr. Rocket Ismail says, somehow dangerous. This is true even if you're athletically inclined yourself, like Dr. Hornung was.
Still, he is not to be blamed. I'm tired of blaming people. Season before last, Notre Dame went 10-3 with its cast of black and white versions of elite athletes. Last season, the Irish went 5-7. With a virtually all-white cast in 1955, including Paul Hornung, Notre Dame went 8-2; then, in 1956, the year Dr. Hornung won the Heisman, they went 2-8. Go figure.
Ten years later, Alan Page won the Irish a national title, then became an NFL MVP, a four-time Super Bowl player, a lawyer, and now a bow-tied magistrate. He emptied his vessel. Few do.
Now, just listening to the interviews of the Final Four teams is enough to make you go smack a parent and a English teacher or two. You can fracture a verb and have it sound charming, as in, "God don't like ugly." But you can also fracture it another way and it comes out, "Don't ever hire me, or count on me to do anything particularly noteworthy but play a half-assed game of basketball."
This is unfortunate. But it is also rectifiable, at some future point. True, many elite athletes, both black and white, would just as soon not figure into any of this. Yes, they are often ignorant for feeling that way, for not exhausting all of their potential. But, they are not so very ignorant that they don't know which side their bread is buttered on, and where they can backslide and get away with it.
Ideally, Notre Dame, or any American college or university, should not be such a place. An elite athlete should not be barred from places of higher learning based on past academic performance in a negative academic environment from which he came. But, once at a reputable school, he should be made to understand, as Raghib Ismail was, that to stay in good standing, he will pull his oar and do his work, whether he runs the 40 in 4.18, or not.
For those who are still awake and are desirous of a passing grade, we will now hear another follow-up to Dr. Hornung's thesis, this one to be delivered by noted African-American scholar, Dr. Gerald Early.
Wait ... where are you all going?
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.