Ashe starts new program to better serve city youth


NEW YORK -- We are all living in the next Spike Lee movie. To pay for the national compulsive gambling in the '80s, the city is talking of closing down swimming pools just in time for summer.

Will the last librarian to be furloughed please turn off the reading lamp? And on the border of our city, a young black man goes to party with white friends and is hit from behind by punks, cowards, racists.

The damage, economic and physical, goes around in circles. Asians, Hispanics, whites and blacks are all being hit from behind, but one group most appears to be an endangered species from violence, from lack of jobs, from poor education, from rootlessness.

"I don't have to tell you there is a theory that an entire generation of young black males is being totally written off," said Arthur Ashe.

Arthur Ashe is a black man, no longer young, a tennis champion, a historian, a heart-bypass patient, husband and father. He has even been the captain for Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the same Davis Cup round, so we know he is a survivor.

He has always been a model American, so we cannot say that Arthur Ashe suddenly has decided to get involved. What we can say is that Arthur Ashe has a new idea. He would like to fight the apocalypse by concentrating on one very specific segment of the population: the young athletes around the city.

The beginning took place Friday with the announcement of the African-American Athletic Association. Dick Barnett, the former Knicks star, with his doctorate in education, will be the first president. Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight champion, cared enough to appear, and the National Basketball Association cared enough to be a charter member.

"This association will set a new tone for the ethos of sports in the five boroughs and the contiguous counties," Ashe said. "This is a local thing."

Why athletes? Good question. Ashe said he gets letters from black parents who resent that their children cannot get into good colleges while athletes with 700 on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests are accepted by compliant admissions directors.

"Seven hundred is ridiculous," Ashe said. "I read an article the other day about a star high-school athlete who was happy he had just scored 700 so he wouldn't have to sit out a year. He shouldn't be happy with 700. He could do better. We will not hold up 700 or a 2.0 grade average as the ideal."

The way things work now, Ashe said, if you multiply the approximately 10,000 black football and basketball players in college by an average cost of $10,000 a year by an average of five years in college, "that's half a billion dollars, and only 18 percent of those athletes are graduated," Ashe added. "Something is wrong."

It is significant that more Americans know Bo Jackson, the commercial, than John Hope Franklin, the historian from Duke University who wrote the mission statement of the new association.

"The closest thing to a big man on campus is the athlete," Ashe said, although he's probably wrong. In some urban schools, the big man on campus probably carries a beeper and drives a Mercedes and delivers drugs. But you've got to start somewhere. And start small and local.

In The New York Times Friday was the heartening story about Herb Crossman, a black man who gave Sam Perkins, a young man on the edge, enough stability for him to go from Brooklyn to high school to North Carolina to the Lakers. Nice story. But does it have any relevance for all the young black men and women?

"We're going to look at three areas," Ashe said. "One, we're going to start with public policy, the budget cuts, the sponsorship by liquor and tobacco companies, and whether Proposition 48 is the right way to go.

"Two, we're going to do mentoring and counseling. Every study we have seen says there is a lack of black male role models. Studying is seen as a whitey thing. We are going to talk about proper speech, about the macho male image."

"And third, we are going to work in career development," Ashe said. "Our members will be people who work for a living. You know how you always hear, 'If I only knew somebody qualified, I'd hire him?' Well, we'll come up with 'em."

The association is talking to a few colleges about setting up programs. There are plans to find a few high schools that will cooperate. A few companies think they can do something.

Where could the money come from? Elliott Denman, a sports columnist with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, recently proposed a "sports tax" of 1 percent of all professional athletes' income. Before you could even talk about it, this new association must prove it can accomplish something. First serve, Mr. Ashe.

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