Commentary

It's still about the kids ... isn't it?

Originally Published: August 10, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

I have spent the better part of the past month trying to get my arms around the commingling and occasionally conflicting world of academics and athletics in college sports. Here's what I know for sure: It's complicated.

I truly believe that the people at the NCAA have the best interest of college sports at heart, and that although their aim is sometimes misguided, or even idealistic, it is not pursued with bad intentions.

But as I reported on this subject, I couldn't escape the two little voices inside my head.

One was my typically vociferous inner cynic, arguing that without standards, coaches would simply abuse admission departments to better their rosters with complete disregard to an athlete's academic success.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chaney
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJohn Chaney believed college sports was a way to offer opportunity in exchange for hard work.

The other was a new voice.

It was raspy, graphic and loud.

And it belonged to John Chaney.

Chaney spent his career as coach at Temple offering opportunity in exchange for hard work and took risks on kids no one else thought were worth the time and turned most of them into success stories with his unique brand of tough love. He and his fellow rabble-rouser, John Thompson, railed loudly against using test scores as the sole barometer of initial eligibility, and today the NCAA uses a sliding scale, incorporating a high school GPA with an SAT or ACT score.

So although my inner cynic screamed that we need standards to keep the rule-benders in line, Chaney's voice roared out a list of players whom I, as a Philadelphia-area native, know well: Mark Macon, Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones, all Prop 48 kids deemed not academically fit for college who instead became wild successes thanks to Chaney.

What would have happened to those guys if they hadn't been given a chance, if they hadn't been exposed to both Chaney and an education at Temple University? Are we the worse for the risk, or are they the better for it?

In a free market society, athletic talent and the financial windfall it brings to a college campus in exchange for an opportunity doesn't seem like such a very bad deal. So maybe instead of legislating in fear of the coaches who might abuse the rules, it's time to roll the dice on the kids who just might reap a lifelong benefit.

I know there are plenty of people -- my inner cynic among them -- who will say some of these kids "don't belong" in college, but really, what does that mean? Some kids are born with a sterling silver spoon, some with plated silver and some with a plastic spork. Do we only reward the ones who merely don't screw up along their preordained sterling silver paths of success?

Admissions offices make decisions every day based on who fits their academic profiles and who does not, and although my inner cynic argues that those offices might be pressured to lower their standards significantly without a base guideline, I also now hear my inner John Chaney telling me to listen to Bill Self.

The Kansas coach argued that the APR, as flawed as it might be, is the perfect system of checks and balances. It basically holds an admissions office, president and, most important, head coach responsible for a kid's academic success.

And while my inner cynic counters that adhering to the APR might encourage more academic fraud or at the very least academic laziness, my inner Chaney reminds me that not every kid needs to have the curriculum pretzel bent for him to succeed.

Plenty take advantage of the chance when it's offered, and regardless of whether "take advantage" equates to a college degree -- exposure to a setting he might otherwise not have experienced, or a contact that led him to the right path -- it can be life-changing.

[+] EnlargeRandy Foye
Elsa/Getty ImagesThrough basketball, Randy Foye was given an opportunity he likely wouldn't have had otherwise.

Ten years ago, I sat down in a Villanova athletic office with Randy Foye. He had arrived on campus from Newark, N.J., a few months earlier. He was shy, not great with eye contact and answered questions directly, if not effusively.

My curiosity was piqued when I read his bio in the media guide. Asked to name a person living or dead he'd most like to meet, Foye responded, "my mother and father."

So that day Foye told me about his life -- about the father who was killed in a motorcycle accident when Randy was just 2, about the mother who took off for parts unknown before Randy hit kindergarten and about the woman he called his grandmother, Ruth Martin, who was really no relation, just a kindly woman in the projects who took him in when there was no one left to raise him.

He told me about his high school, Eastside High, made famous by the movie "Lean on Me" and perennially ranked near the bottom of New Jersey public schools. While Foye was there, Eastside was hit with a major recruiting scandal, and the program was decimated. Everyone figured he'd transfer to one of the top-notch Catholic schools in North Jersey. He didn't. He stayed out of loyalty to his high school.

Foye was an OK student, but based solely on his academics, he never would have gotten in to Villanova.

For its roll of the academic dice, Villanova received an All-American, Big East Player of the Year and first-round draft pick who would help restore the Wildcats to national prominence.

And Foye? Foye blossomed into a self-assured man who could crack a joke or speak thoughtfully on just about any topic, who earned a college degree, an NBA paycheck and enough money to start the Randy Foye Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping kids in Newark.

Kids, that is, who are just like him, who are in need of people willing to believe more in possibility and less in cynicism.

Dana O'Neil | email

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