Saturday, May 16, 2009

Spike Lee, Student-Athletes and Education

Tonight ESPN will air a documentary about Kobe Bryant by Spike Lee. With Spike Lee in the news, and Penn State's Graduation weekend here, I wanted to share a story.

Spike Lee is a filmmaker who has been both praised and criticized for his views on a range of topics. His 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” was responsible for a whole wave of discussion on the subject of urban race relations in this country. For everyone (like myself) who loved the movie, there was someone who would argue that it promoted violence.
But that has been at the heart of his greatest moments--an ability to spur discussion and dialogue.

Spike Lee has created a vast and widely diverse range of projects---from the aforementioned “Do The Right Thing” to “Jungle Fever” to “Summer of Sam” to “25th Hour” to his famous Mars Blackmon Nike ads with Michael Jordan. In my mind two of his most powerful films were “Malcolm X” and the documentary “When The Levee Breaks”—about Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

Back in 2005 I was fortunate enough to have a chance to talk with Spike Lee. For about a half an hour prior to a speech he made at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium we talked on a range of subjects. I took quarterback Michael Robinson and defensive end Matt Rice with me to meet someone they both idolized.

In the discussion about student-athletes, Spike Lee made a comment about the student-athletes being used, and deserving to be paid to play. He referred to the NCAA’s system of amateurism in big-time football and basketball as a glorified plantation system.

In the next few minutes I gained respect for Spike Lee—because he engaged in a give and take discussion with me on the subject. His views were not set in stone. He was as good a listener as he was in passing on wisdom he had gained in his groudbreaking career.

What we agreed upon was this: The student-athletes getting “used” were the ones who did not get their education. Student-athletes should demand that universities respect and honor their right to get the education they want. Unfortunately, far too many are getting used by the system.

I pointed out that Penn State's African-American Football Players routinely graduate at a rate of about 80%--roughly the same graduation rate of all Penn State students and well above the national average for African-American Football Student-Athletes (around 50%).

We ask a lot of our players, but the NCAA has rules we adhere to: In-season we are only allowed to use 20 hours a week for football, in the off-season that numbers drops to 8 hours a week.

I asked Spike Lee that if I offered him a chance to work 20 hours a week for 18 weeks and 8 hours a week the rest of the year—and that would enable him to graduate from college debt-free—would he take it?

Like most people, he answered yes.

In his speech that night in Eisenhower Auditorium he did talk about college athletics. When he was critical of the system he paused and mentioned Penn State’s stellar graduation rate and commitment to academics--was the exception.

With graduation weekend here at Penn State, it is a good time to remember what sets Penn State apart from so many other schools—that commitment to academic and athletic excellence that is second to none nationally.