Being the first in your family to go to college used to mean something.
There were the obstacles to overcome. Everyone always points to the financial burden, which was significant and remains so, but no moreso than the pressures to excel in an unfamiliar arena. It’s about going where no one you know has gone before.
But the very phrase “going to college” and the journey it speaks to has proven to be inadequate, and maybe it always was — the “going” is full of assumptions that are never completely articulated until they become yet another generation of dreams deferred. This has been exposed repeatedly over the last 20-plus years as an evolving class of student-athletes has “gone” to the next level prior to achieving full academic honors.
When I was a kid, going to college was the ultimate prize — although leaving without the degree was never an option or, for that matter, a consideration. That just wasn’t how the game was played. College was a four-year trip, and so I strapped myself in for the full ride.
The destination changed a couple of times along the way. Growing up in North Carolina meant looking first toward the University of North Carolina roster of schools. UNC Asheville, in my hometown, would mean going to college without really having to go anywhere.
Soon enough, though, thanks to counselors and teachers who saw the potential in my grades and academic minded approach, Chapel Hill garnered significant buzz. Ultimately it was my wanderlust for life outside the South that turned my focus to Columbia University and, eventually, the University of Pennsylvania.
I was ready to go, and nothing was going to stop me. Not even a nearly fatal accident during the summer before my junior year could impede my progress toward getting a degree.
For me, going to college was more than showing up the first day or maybe making it through the first year or two. It was about finishing what I started. The numbers, of course, spoke to countless examples of students, especially African Americans, who got sidetracked, frustrated or otherwise became unable to seize the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
I love sports. My childhood memories include stickball games in the street, rough and tumble hours of football on an old dirt patch while waiting for the school bus in the morning and afternoons in early August on the tennis courts after a quick burst of summer rain would glaze the surface and then dry before our eyes like time-lapsed photography.
My first love was always basketball, although I remember years when I fought against the urge to play because I wanted to show the world, at least a select audience of folks in western North Carolina, that a young black man had more on his mind than dribbling to the hole.
The thing is I wasn’t good enough to play high school or college sports. I’m not sure I even wanted to back then, but if the thought crossed my mind it kept right on going. There are all kinds of love, but I wanted passion, which I found in books and writing and the knowledge that I was going somewhere else.
This year I plan to attend my 15th class reunion at Penn. As I reminisce about that four-year stretch, I would go so far as to say that, in some ways, I was a student-athlete too.
Sports figure significantly in my college experiences.
During my recovery from a near fatal accident one summer, I rehabbed for hours alone on the floor of the Palestra, one of the oldest and most hallowed collegiate basketball courts in the country. I couldn’t imagine going to college and not having these experiences.
But the hard work and hard knocks that came with going all the way has turned me into a bit of an oldhead on the subject. As a sports fan, I have no problem with young athletes who feel they’re ready to test their talent and abilities by forgoing the full college experience — let’s be honest, their college years are generally not academically driven.
Kids able to go to college on athletic scholarships are there to train their bodies to compete at the next level and fill the coffers of university athletic departments so that new gymasiums, stadiums, exercise facilities and scholarships can maintain this closed-loop rhythm. Like old school Hip Hop, it’s all about beats and rhymes.
The new school has added the bling and swallowed the assumptions in the phrase “going to college” like so many “Gs.” Kids are goin’ without any concern for finishin’.
So why go at all? Why waste time and talent on an experience that makes a mockery of both the academic and athletic traditions and sustain the rampant hypocrisy that dominates the current cultural debate. Did LeBron James need to go to college? Did Kobe Bryant? Michelle Wie or Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi? Maurice Clarett? (tt clinkscales)