Notre Dame football great Paul Hornung is known for blunt chatter during radio broadcasts, but he stuck his cleats in his mouth with his recent remarks about race and sports at his alma mater. In the process, he risked putting a big hurt on the school that he loves.
In an interview with a Detroit radio station, Hornung, who won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1956, said his alma mater “can’t stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned, because we’ve got to get the black athlete. We must get the black athlete if we’re going to compete.”
As for academic standards, the last thing Notre Dame needs to do is tarnish the policies that have helped make it a football powerhouse as well as one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. Instead of Notre Dame lowering its standards, other NCAA schools should be raising theirs.
NCAA exploitation of student athletes is a national scandal, especially for black athletes. Two-thirds of recruited NCAA Division I athletes do not graduate. Four of the 65 recent NCAA men’s basketball tournament qualifiers did not graduate a single player in the NCAA’s latest survey. Sixteen had graduation rates of less than 25 percent.
Notre Dame, by contrast, graduates more than nine out of ten of its athletes overall and 78 percent of its black athletes—the sixth highest graduation rate for black student athletes in the nation, according to the NCAA. Notre Dame’s disappointing 5-7 football record last season followed a 10-3 season a year earlier. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.
Perhaps Hornung merely meant to say that Notre Dame needs to attract more “star” athletes. If so, they can do that without insulting Notre Dame athletes by lowering standards and caving in to the craven winning-is-everything climate in college sport today.
Now is the time to step up pressure on NCAA problem schools to make students of their athletes. The entertainment industry known as college sports is sadly and relentlessly resilient to meaningful reforms.
It’s an unpleasant thought after the gaiety of March Madness or the football bowl games, but an appallingly large percentage of the athletes who draw the most attention in college sports are not really students in any meaningful sense. Colleges owe something more than a slim shot at the professional brass ring to the players who dutifully help them raise revenue. They can begin by raising expectations, not lowering them. So can the high schools and middle schools that prepare those athletes for college play. Athletes are accustomed to facing challenges and beating them on the courts and playing fields. They can do it in the classroom, too.