In the final minutes of Auburn’s regional semi-final win against North Carolina Friday night, disaster struck. Star player Chuma Okeke went down with a non-contact injury that silenced the crowd. As he squirmed on the floor in pain, it seemed obvious to all in the arena that this was a season-ending and career threatening injury. Auburn teammates rushed to his side to check on him. Carolina players near Okeke had looks of genuine concern for their fallen opponent.
Finally, Okeke was helped to his feet and assisted off the playing floor toward the locker room. As he left the floor, every single North Carolina player on the floor made their way to him to express concern and encouragement. In the game’s aftermath, social media raved about the acts of sportsmanship by the Carolina players.
But the actions of these players go beyond sportsmanship. All those little things that we consider acts of good sportsmanship are things coaches can require or demand. North Carolina’s kids displayed something much more important: a high level of character. They weren’t just following a coach’s demands or trying to uphold the values or their basketball program. They had genuine concern for their fallen opponent.
And you may not have noticed, but this is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. College basketball is being flooded with high character kids. If you’ve watched long enough and give it just a little bit of reflection and thought, you’ll realize it hasn’t always been this way. Think of Big East basketball in the early to mid 80’s. Dirty play, brawls, and plenty of guys that looked like they were destined for prison instead of the NBA when their college days came to an end. Academic standards were lower for college admission for athletes.
Coaches regularly took chances on talented guys with questionable academics, work ethic, character, and coachability. The best example of this would be N.C. State’s stereo stealing and 500 SAT scoring Chris Washburn (who left college after one year and was one of the biggest draft busts in NBA history). But guys like that don’t even get recruited now. Why? Because the unknowns have become know. How?
My guess is two things: Prop 48 and social media.
Enacted in 1986, Prop 48 raised academic requirements for incoming student athletes (combination of GPA and SAT/ACT scores). The outcry didn’t take long to surface: “Prop 48 disqualifies a much larger proportion of black and low income students. ACT and SAT tests are racially biased.” The short term statistics may have loosely backed up these claims.
But the short-sighted vision of looking only at short-term outcomes could have easily washed away any potential of lasting benefits.
What died after Prop 48’s inception was the attitude of, “If I play well enough in high school, some college coach will find a way to get me into school.” Once kids started missing out on a shot at Division 1 basketball, the attitudes of athletes toward high school academics didn’t take long to start shifting. “If I won’t do school work, I won’t play.”
It’s pretty amazing what happens when you raise standards for young people instead of making excuses for them.
What about social media? Just as higher academic standards removed some level of uncertainty for coaches concerning future academic troubles, social media of high school athletes gives college coaches a closer peak at the character of players.
If a kid’s Twitter account is full of profanity, unhealthy attitude towards women, racism, etc., it’s no longer a matter of some college coach being willing to take a chance on a kid of questionable character. It’s becomes a case of no longer being recruited by anybody. Coaches make it clear what is expected. Players have come to learn what is acceptable.
Simply put, I’m a firm believer that lower standards produce lower quality of effort. You can say what you want about requirement-lowering ideas like affirmative action, but you’ll never convince me that they produce anything other than the poison of meeting lowered expectations. If you demand less, you’ll get less.
Expecting and requiring more of NCAA athletes has produced some pretty favorable results. And as I’ve watched game after game during March Madness, I’m often impressed with great players and good teams and the excitement of the tournament. But I have learned to thoroughly appreciate all those moments where plays unfold, and the actions on the floor leave me thinking, “He just seems like a great kid.”
Good guys don’t finish last anymore. And bad guys don’t even make the team. I’m okay with that.