Sports Obits: Read Them And Weep

By Brian P. Dunleavy
June 5, 2012

During his time as a professional player in the National Basketball Association, Orlando Woolridge made the alley-oop into an art form.

Too bad his life was no masterpiece.

Woolridge’s passing last week—he died at the age of 52 after a long battle with heart disease—made headlines because he was a relatively well-known professional athlete. But if you look deeply into the bios published in print and posted online in the days after his passing, you see an example of everything that’s wrong about college and professional sports in this country.

This is not spitting on Woolridge’s grave. I actually admired him greatly as a player. Rather, it is simply a statement of fact.

Woolridge spent fours years at the University of Notre Dame (here I go again)—as a scholarship basketball player—before embarking on a 15-year NBA career.

That Woolridge had to steal scrap metal in order to make ends meet—he was arrested for allegedly doing so earlier this year—should embarrass those at Notre Dame who were responsible for “educating” him. That he was left to die in his parents’ home in Mansfield, La.—where the median household income is below the national poverty line—certainly speaks poorly of the NBA organizations for which he played as well.

Sadly, Woolridge is only the latest example of an athlete who fell through the gaping cracks of the system designed to exploit his talents. How many people do you know who spent four years at an institution of higher learning and are now forced to steal and sell scrap metal on the streets? I’d venture to guess not many. However, among former athletes, stories such as these are far too common. Google “Mike Webster Pittsburgh Steelers” for another one.

True, Woolridge was his own man and he made his own mistakes, including a long suspension for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. And colleges and universities can’t hold scholarship athletes at gunpoint and make them attend class and pay attention while there.

However, they also shouldn’t allow athletics programs to push these kids through the ranks only so that they can remain academically eligible to play. Yes, scholarships give kids an opportunity to succeed, but coaches and administrators should make academics the focus of that opportunity rather than simply a necessary evil that fades into the background behind their achievements on the basketball court or the football field.

In other words, universities have an obligation to ensure that all scholarship athletes, who bring so much to these schools in terms of notoriety and revenue from ticket sales and merchandising, leave their institutions with at least the skills needed to survive after their playing days are over.

And the current generation of multimillionaire NBA players and owners need to do more to take care of the older players—like Woolridge—who paved the way for them to make the money they make now. During recent labor disputes in both the NBA and the National Football League, the respective players unions have essentially ignored the cries of older, retired players who, having not made the salaries of their contemporary counterparts, desperately need improved pension and health care programs.

A great basketball player died last week. Unfortunately, the system that failed him lives on.


About the author: Brian P. Dunleavy is a writer who lives in New York.



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