Sister Rose and the Jocks

Today, on the front page of The New York Times, is a must-read story about a 77 year-old nun who is demonstrating that big-time college sports can work. Sister Rose Ann Fleming is the academic advisor for Xavier University athletics, where all 77 senior basketball players have graduated since she came to Xavier. That’s remarkable in age when too many people are willing to dumb-down expectations for jocks.It’s well known that many universities graduate relatively few ballplayers. Just take the 65 teams that will take part in “March Madness,” the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Times reports that a new study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida shows that one in five tournament teams have graduation rates below 40 percent. Where are all those kids going?When such topics arise, you can usually hear apologists say, “But that’s big-time sports, get over it,” or, “At least those kids get to go to a college.” To be honest, I’m tired of hearing such gibberish. No one would want such a path for their own kid, and yet we are willing to tolerate it for other kids. And let’s face it: these kids often are minorities from poor areas.

What Sister Rose is telling us is that we can embrace these kids and create the right environment for them to learn and grow and – yes – get a higher education degree. She knows where Xavier’s priorities are, and she lives them. In the Times, Xavier basketball coach Chris Mack is quoted as saying, “Sometimes, she’ll schedule an appointment or an academic meeting right in the middle of practice.” Then, he continued, “I’ll say, ‘Sister, we have practice at 4.’ She’ll say, ‘No, this is important.’” Damn right it is.

Sister Rose lives by the belief that if a kid is good enough to become an outstanding ballplayer, then a kid can learn. The job of the school is to harness their energy into their studies. The trick is to figure out how each kid learns and to work with them.

My point today is not about educational pedagogy; rather, it is about what we choose to focus on and what we believe we can affect, even amid all the countervailing forces in our lives. Conventional wisdom is that big-time college sports are first and foremost a business; perhaps next, they’re entertainment. But all-too-often the education of the kids wearing a school’s uniform seems way down the list. The philosophy is: recruit them, use them, and discard them.

Now, very few of us, if any, are involved in college sports. But we are all involved in activities and endeavors that call upon us to make basic judgments and choices about how we will approach something. For instance, will we insist on using our organizational lens for thinking about community challenges, or will we think first about the community and the people who livers there. Or take dealing with funders and foundations: will we kow-tow to their every wish, or engage them in a real conversation?

What Sister Rose is telling us – and proving to us – is that there are alternate paths we can take. To do so, we must be brave enough to choose them.