New Game Plan
Former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson has left the Hoyas, but not his commitment to preparing student athletes for successful lives
A vocal opponent of fresh man eligibility standards for college athletes since their inception, former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson once walked off the court to protest the implementation of the National Collegiate Athletics Association's Proposition 42 (see Evolution page 26). The action was typical of a man who has never been afraid to speak his mind -- particularly when he was speaking about educational opportunities for African American athletes.
Thompson's tenure at Georgetown began in 1972. In his 27-year tenure as head coach, 97 percent of the men's basketball players earned their degrees, according to the university. And Thompson achieved that graduation rate with students who many critics said didn't belong at Georgetown academically.
But basketball merely provided the sounding board from which Thompson could attack problems that chronically manifest themselves in higher education and continually permeate the national culture -- the problems of race and equity. This achievement is even more remarkable when one considers the hostile environments and name-calling with which he and his players frequently had to contend -- as was the case at his own alma mater in the early '80s, when Providence University fans displayed signs that insulted Patrick Ewing's intelligence in a dehumanizing manner.
And Thompson not only has worked relentlessly to increase educational access for young Black men, he has been just as diligent about imparting a sense of social responsibility to those under his charge and among the society at large.
Recently, during the first round of the NCAA's basketball championship tournament, Black Issues Publisher Frank Matthews and News Editor Eric St. John spoke with the former Georgetown coach in his new digs at WTEM-AM. Thompson hosts a morning sports-talk show at this Washington, D.C., station. Although the conversation -- like his show and his life -- covered more than just college sports, the discussion revolved around minority access and academic standards.
As someone who was an early opponent of placing restrictions on freshmen participation in college sports based on standardized test scores, do you think you've been vindicated by the U.S. Third Circuit Court's decision to prevent the NCAA from continuing to use Proposition 48?
Not really ... The way I look at it, it was quite obvious that I was correct. It didn't take a rocket scientist to understand that what I was saying was right because the Educational Testing Service came out, even at that time, and indicated that there was a misuse of an educational instrument -- the SAT. The SATs were good to use, but they weren't good to use in the manner in which the NCAA schools were using them.
I can be happy about what the judge did, but we can never go back and change the lives of those young people that that instrument was misused on. So it's not a time for me to gloat. I'm glad that they changed it, but I'm also upset with the fact that it took so long.
What is the basic structure of the NCAA?
First of all, I think the most misleading thing about the NCAA is that we tend to think that the people out in Kansas City are the NCAA. What the NCAA actually turns out to be is the colleges and institutions [across] this country. They have the luxury of hiding because nobody ever finds out how an individual school votes. Nobody ever holds individuals accountable for their decisions. They all point towards the NCAA [offices] out in Kansas City.
But those people [out there] are an enforcement agency. That's like going after the police department for making the laws. The police department enforces the laws. The NCAA enforces laws that educational institutions make. So when you go through your committee systems -- the presidents and ADs [athletics directors] and whatever system -- these are people who supposedly are academic people who are making a lot of this legislation. …