Unless I missed something, I agree with every word of Edward Grant’s piece today on the Syracuse/Georgetown rivalry and on what recent stories from the two schools say more broadly about college sports — and I say that not just because Grant’s sympathies obviously lie with our mutual alma mater of Georgetown. College football is almost invariably a cesspool these days; college basketball is a cesspool often, but not nearly invariably. It’s the nature of the beast: It’s a lot easier for coaches to keep tabs on about twelve players than it is to keep tabs on 85. It’s easier to make sure they are going to class; easier to discipline them if they go out of line (in part because it’s easier to catch them going out of line because there are only twelve of them to watch); and easier to intervene early enough, and to intervene constructively, and to turn a kid’s life around, when the numbers are smaller.
And while the father-son John Thompsons are not saints, they do get most of the big things right. The father famously kept a deflated basketball on his desk as a sign to his players that the air would eventually seep out of their hoops stardom, so they needed to prepare to be successful in other ways as well. In other words, they really did need to get an education. I had classes with a number of his players from 1982–86, and I can attest that unless they were actually traveling to a game, they were there in every single class. They may not have had the same academic backgrounds we did (although a couple of them did have good backgrounds, and more than a couple were quite smart), but they not just attended class but usually participated actively. They had a tutor, the famously redoubtable Mary Fenlon, who surely helped some of them along — but just as surely kept her foot on their educational accelerators, demanding that they actually learn.
Even when Thompson outraged many conservatives, most famously when he walked off the court to protest the rule mandating minimum standardized test scores for first-year eligibility, his point was a better one than most conservatives understood. He wasn’t trashing the idea that educational attainment isn’t important; he was insisting that the right system could make up for prior educational deficits.
(I actually thought this was one instance where the elder Thompson was, in a word not often used to describe him, naive. Just because he, Fenlon, and the smallish, private Georgetown could lift up even those who had scored quite low on standardized tests, didn’t mean that most programs could or even really would try to do so. Again, big-time college athletics is often a cesspool, and far too few programs have the integrity to do it right.)
Even the elder Thompson appeared to be cutting corners by the mid-to-late 1990s, if reports were to be believed — not violating NCAA rules, but perhaps making exceptions to the higher standards he had spent a quarter-century establishing.
Anyway . . . back to the current day . . . the younger Thompson showed admirable compassion, thoughtfulness, and foresight in this latest instance of arranging one last time on the court for a player who had been sidelined for most of the past four years with a heart ailment. His gesture, and opponent Seton Hall’s generous participation in it, was a reminder that athletics still can be ennobling. Maybe they will be ennobling again at Syracuse as well, one day. The probation and penalties Syracuse now will endure might serve to help the Orange avoid falling prey to the over-hyped big time represented by the huge Carrier Dome; maybe it’s time, 35 years after the elder Thompson “officially closed” it, for Syracuse to re-open at least the spirit of the more intimate Manley Field House.