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Outside the Lines:
Unable To Read


Here's the transcript from Show 103 of weekly Outside The Lines - Unable To Read

SUN., MARCH 17, 2002
Host: Bob Ley, ESPN.
Reporter: Lisa Salters, ESPN.
Guests: Tom McMillen, member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics; John Corcoran, literacy activist and a former college basketball player

BOB LEY, ESPN - March 17th, 2002. March madness is about basketball, not the system of higher education supporting these games. In the wake of revelations of abysmal graduation rates, questions abound about how prepared young players are to attend college, recalling this former player's experience.

KEVIN ROSS - I opened that book up, I was just scared to death because I said this is what it's all about. How am I going to get through this?

LEY - Kevin Ross made national headlines when he completed four years of college and was found to be illiterate.

LISA SALTERS - Did they know you couldn't read?

ROSS - They had to. They had to know. I fulfilled my contract by playing for them so they should have fulfilled their contract by educating me.

LEY - Twenty years later, his son is a college player and the larger issue remains. Today on "Outside The Lines" - how possible is it to be playing in college and still unable to read?

No other country develops its athletes like the United States. That is, within the system of higher education. We recently reported that over 10 percent of the schools in Division One have a graduation rate of zero percent for five straight classes of African/American male basketball players.

Among the many issues this number raises is just how prepared are young athletes to step onto a college campus?

The Creighton Blue Jays, the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference, are alive in the NCAA tournament after their dramatic double overtime buzzer three point shot that defeated Florida and put Creighton in today's second round.

Nearly 20 years ago, that Jesuit school was at the epicenter of the most basic issue for a scholarship athlete, illiteracy. Since that time, the NCAA has instituted requirements on SAT scores and core curricula for incoming freshmen; yet, the U.S. Department of Education says the problem of illiteracy among youngsters is increasing so that the story of Kevin Ross may be less history than a cautionary tale for the future; a story reported by Lisa Salters.

LISA SALTERS, ESPN - At the same Kansas City, Kansas, junior high school where he was once a basketball star, 43-year-old Kevin Ross is now a custodian.

ROSS - I pride myself in doing this because it's beating not doing anything. This ain't my dream, of course, but, you know, you got to pay bills.

SALTERS - He once dreamed of playing in the NBA.

ROSS - This is my high school picture. We was a championship team. I was a tenth grader and I really enjoyed the game of basketball.

SALTERS - In 1978, after an all-state senior season in high school, the six foot nine center accepted an offer to play at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

SALTERS - When you graduated from high school and you got your diploma, could you read it?

ROSS - I could read my name. Yes, I can read the name and the school that I went to.

SALTERS - That was it?

ROSS - Yes, that was it.

SALTERS - Ross was functionally illiterate, yet he was about to go to college.

SALTERS - When you went to Creighton did they know you couldn't read?

ROSS - They had to. They had to know. I took the entry test. I don't know how I passed it, to be honest with you.

SALTERS - Ross took the ACT, a standardized test for college-bound high school seniors. The average score for incoming Creighton freshmen was 23 out of a possible 36. Ross scored a nine. At first, the school refused to admit him, but Ross says the athletic department got that decision overturned.

ROSS - The first day at school, I was scared to death because I didn't know nothing. I opened that book up, I was just scared to death because I said this is what it's all about. How am I going to get through this?

SALTERS - The answer quickly became clear. Ross took courses like "Theory of Basketball" and "Marksmanship." According to Ross, the athletic department employed a secretary to do his homework. Test days weren't a problem either.

ROSS - See, my test papers, when I go in, they would be turned over on the desk and the teacher would say - well, Kevin, that's your desk. And I'll go there and it's already done and all I had to do was fill my name -- put my name where they say your name and he said -- don't rush, be cool; just think about basketball, think about the big game this weekend.

SALTERS - Ross averaged four points and two-and-a-half rebounds in four injury-plagued years at Creighton. When basketball season ended his senior year, his passing grades ended, too.

ROSS - I'm going to tell you, I was passing freshman year, my sophomore year, my junior year, but don't you know that my last semester of my senior year that's when I got my Fs and my -- and my Ds because they didn't have no more use for me.

SALTERS - Ross left college without a degree and still unable to read. He says a Creighton basketball booster found out about his plight and pressured the school to do something. According to Ross, Creighton gave him three choices -- a job with the Omaha Police Department, or tuition for either a local vocational school, or a private elementary school in Chicago.

In 1982, just months after he left Creighton, 23-year-old Kevin Ross enrolled at Westside Prep Elementary School, founded by renowned educator, Marva Collins.

MARVA COLLINS - I had a lot of admiration for Kevin because it took a lot of courage to say I need help. Secondly, it took a lot of courage to sit in with second/third graders.

SALTERS - Collins took it upon herself to personally teach Ross. They started from scratch learning vowel sounds and syllables.

COLLINS - For example, changing nouns to adjectives like orchestra, orchestral, orchestrally, orchestrally speaking, orchestrally speaking the orchestra was well orchestrated.

SALTERS - Was she like a drill sergeant?

ROSS - A drill sergeant? You being nice. She was no nonsense. You know, you here to learn and that's what you here for. If you don't want to learn, there's the door.

COLLINS - The saddest part of this all is Kevin was very bright so teaching him wasn't a challenge. All I did for Kevin was what someone should have done all those years.

SALTERS - In nine months, Ross jumped 11 grade levels in reading. In May of 1983, he graduated from Westside Prep. Suddenly, he was a star off the court. He met President Ronald Reagan, testified before congress, and made numerous television appearances.

But his notoriety gradually faded. In 1986, he briefly attended Roosevelt University in Chicago but didn't have enough money to continue. A year later, he was unemployed, depressed, and abusing drugs and alcohol.

ROSS - I woke up one day and I was thinking about committing suicide.

SALTERS - On a hot July morning in 1987, Ross snapped.

NEWSCASTER - It started early this morning when Ross appeared on the balcony of a hotel room not far from the loop and began throwing things to the street.

SALTERS - Ross had barricaded himself inside a room at a downtown Chicago hotel. He said he would shoot any intruders, and he emptied the room's contents onto the street eight floors below smashing police cars and endangering lives.

SALTERS - You threw everything out the window?

ROSS - Threw even my own stuff. That's how frustrated -- how upset and frustrated I was. But something in my mind said everything here is quite Creighton University. These are the people -- the objects I threw off the hotel -- threw out of the room. It was the people at the school. I considered jumping and something in my mind said make a phone call so I called Ms. Collins up.

COLLINS - The staff and I got in the car and went down and I had to get them to let me through because you got all these experts there. Here's Kevin on this balcony looking wild-eyed; not the Kevin that I knew.

NEWSCASTER - Marva Collins spoke to Ross from an adjacent balcony urging him to put an end to his tirade.

ROSS - She was telling me -- you know, pleading to me -- don't -- you know, it's kind of -- it's kind of emotional for me to talk about it but there wasn't a best -- the best moment for me but she came and she talked me out. So I went on and I came out. And you could see that it isn't an easy thing for me to talk about because when you that close to ending your life, only you know how you feel.

NEWSCASTER - Today, the man Marva Collins described as a gentle giant had to be subdued by a dozen policemen and placed on a stretcher, was taken to a hospital for a psychiatric examination.

SALTERS - With Collins' help, Ross avoided felony charges and got treatment for severe depression and alcohol abuse. In 1988, he sued Creighton University for educational malpractice, negligent admission, and emotional distress. The suit was settled out of court in 1992. Ross received $30,000. Creighton admitted no liability.

ROSS - The lying and the cheating that did go on at Creighton, I prayed that all away. And I'm going to say as far I forgive Creighton because it's not going to help me to hold a grudge, to be bitter towards them. I just hope what happened to me there, I hope it don't happen to no other one.

Good morning, boys and girls.

CHILDREN - Good morning.

CHILD - He is one of my best friends.

SALTERS - Which is why his other job at his old junior high is so important to him. Kevin Ross is also a substitute teacher. He hopes to save enough money to return to college and get his degree. For now, his 96 credit hours for Creighton fulfill the substitute-teaching requirement in Kansas.

ROSS - OK, one more ...

SALTERS - When you're in the classroom, how much of Marva Collins is in the classroom as well?

ROSS - She taught me everything that I know.

SALTERS - And you're passing that on?

ROSS - That's it, I'm passing it on.

SALTERS - Ross has already touched one young life, his son's.

ROSS - What's up boy? You done grown, boy. How you been? I didn't want him to be like me; I wanted him to be better than me.

SALTERS - Like his father was, 19-year-old Kevin Shorter is a college basketball player -- a red shirt freshman at Ohio University. Ross wasn't around for the first 10 years of his son's life but they've grown close since. As a result, Shorter may know more than any of his teammates about where basketball can take you and where it cannot.

KEVIN SHORTER - Tells me to make sure I hit the books. I work hard at whatever it is that I'm doing. I don't let nobody push me -- don't let nobody push me through.

ROSS - Tickets for Kevin Ross.

SALTERS - In February, Kevin Ross went to one of his son's games; his first college basketball game since his playing days at Creighton 20 years ago. Until this day, he says it was too emotionally painful for him to see a game in person. Now, Ross watches his son pursue the dream that was once his own.

ROSS - Kevin can read. Kevin can play basketball. He ain't going to college being half a person like I was. He's in college. He's a full person because he can do both.

SALTERS - Do you feel like you are picking up where he left off?

SHORTER - Yes, I feel like that because, you know, I'm going to finish something that he started, you know, and just go as far as I can go with it.

ROSS - Great win. Hey, I put it on them.

SHORTER - It would be good for him to have that feeling. You know, that feeling that he -- that he should have had through me.

ROSS - When my son gets that diploma from Ohio University, I might have to have a box of tissue there because I know it's going to bring so much joy and happiness to me to see my son get that degree that he can read. And when that day comes, that's going to be the greatest day because I want him to get what I didn't get.

LEY - Kevin Shorter was red-shirted last year at Ohio University and his freshman grade point average was 2.9. His current cum is 2.6.

Tom Apke, the head coach who recruited Kevin Ross to Creighton, declined to speak with us and we should note that Creighton University, in the latest NCAA report, has a four-year graduation rate for African-American male basketball players of 80 percent.

Next, how bad is this problem now? I'll talk with a man who has played in the National Basketball Association and also served in congress, and a literacy advocate who also played college basketball and attended college even as he was illiterate.

LEY -To consider the issue of players unable to read, we welcome Tom McMillen. Before he served three terms in the House of Representatives, he played 11 seasons in the NBA. He's also a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and he joins us this morning from Washington, DC.

John Corcoran is a literacy activist and a former college basketball player. He played while at Texas Western, went on to become a teacher, all the while disguising his illiteracy. And only at the age of 48 did he master the basics of reading. He, this morning, is in San Diego.

Good morning, gentlemen.

McMILLEN - Good morning.

LEY - Tom ...

CORCORAN - Good morning.

LEY - ... what is your learned gut tell you about how many Kevin Rosses we may still have in college sports?

MCMILLEN - I think a lot fewer than before but the issue of academic integrity in our college campuses is very real and I don't think there's a lot of players. But it's so unbelieving to think that someone could be in an institution of higher learning like a Creighton and literally go through four years and be illiterate. It's shocking.

LEY - John, how many Kevins are out there?

JOHN CORCORAN - I think more than we want to fess up to. If you look at the national statistics, we've got 25 percent of the people learned to read like birds learn to fly. And on the other end of the spectrum, we have about 25 percent of people that cannot read, write or spell.

And we're graduating a million kids from -- a couple million kids from our high schools today that have deficiencies in basic skills and some of those are athletes and going to universities. Forty-three percent of the college freshmen in the university system in California have deficiencies in basic skills. We fail to teach our people how to read, write and spell.

LEY - And you didn't learn how to read until you were 48 years of age. You have a very poignant life story. Give me an -- in essence, you've said, it's like living a lie, as you felt, an adult illiterate. What do you ...

CORCORAN - I really appreciated Kevin's piece there. I feel like I'm a fellow traveler. We have felt the pain and I think illiteracy in America is a form of child neglect and child abuse and we're traumatized. And the very fact that we are not dumb, we just have not been taught to read yet and we can learn to read. That is -- that's the critical piece is that we have and can learn to read with proper instruction and proper instruction comes from properly trained teachers.

LEY - Well Tom, you brought up the issue of academic integrity. I'm going to bring in a piece of tape with Jon Ericson of the reform minded Drake Group; what he calls the big lie having to do with college athletics.

JON ERICSON, DRAKE GROUP - It is that you can take an under-prepared student not -- does not have the skills to do academic work in higher education, then, take that student, give him a job 30 hours a week where he will be tired when he does come to class -- he's also excused for maybe seven -- maybe eight or nine classes and expect him to acquire anything close to what we would call a university education.

LEY - Is that true? And if it is, who's the blame?

MCMILLEN - It's absolutely true and the problem is that it goes down into our high schools. As was said earlier in this show, we're the only country in the world that has this super highway through our classrooms to get to the pros, and kids fall for that sirens call when they're in third grade. And so they forego their education, their teachers forego their education, they're put on this primrose path and it leads, for most kids, nowhere.

And so what happens is that we bring the standards of our college and universities down to let these kids into -- onto the super highway and we are diminishing our great institutions of higher learning in this country, diminishing the billions of dollars of taxpayers' money that we're putting into these institutions, and we're doing no one any good and this is ...

LEY - Why are schools then rolling over like this?

MCMILLEN - It has to do with -- you know, it's the lure of money. It's the lure of commercialism. I mean, the athletic tail is clearly wagging the academic dog in our -- for many of our institutions of higher learning in this country and this is a very flawed system. I think it needs some real serious looking at because it's going deeper and deeper into our elementary schools and though our high schools now and serious consequences to American education.

LEY - John, you know college basketball. What would you say to a Nolan Richardson? A couple of week ago, he was quoted as saying -- you know, these kids come to me, they're 18, so where were the parents? Where were the other teachers? Why do you expect the coach to be the one to turn everything around like this?

CORCORAN - Well, you know, we've institutionalized illiteracy. This is nothing new. This has just been perpetuated for 50 years. We've been socially promoting kids for a long time. We did not know what to do with little boys and little girls like John Corcoran who had difficulty learning how to read, write, and spell.

We have the research and the knowledge to impart those skills right now. We are in a different place but we truly are -- this problem -- we're looking at the athlete today but the problem is bigger than athletics. We have failed to teach people how to read, write and spell and we've perpetuated and who's responsible?

The high school teachers do not even take responsibility for teaching high school kids to read. They blame the elementary school teachers. Elementary school teachers blame the parents. The universities are equally responsible. They're the ones that are supposed to be training the teachers how to teach us how to read, write and spell.

So this is really good news in a way to focus on the athlete because it really focuses on America's epidemic of illiteracy and we can -- this is one of the issues that we can do something about and the universities are equally responsible as a kindergarten teacher or a first-grade teacher.

LEY - Well, you got a situation though, John, where the NCAA next month is going to consider -- of course, the whole issue of standardized testing is a very emotional third rail issue but they're looking at possibly lowering SAT requirements even further. And that sliding scale with GPAs, Tom, what signal would that send?

MCMILLEN - Well, it's all about, you know, who should get into our colleges. And when I was in congress, we passed the "student's right to know bill" which was once disclosed graduation rates and we fully were aware that schools were going to try to circumvent those statistics. I mean, statistics can be manipulated, so, you know, raising/lowering the standards -- you know, at the end of the game, should an individual go to our institutions of higher learning? Are they equipped to do it? Are they of similar caliber of other students?

Those are the questions and the NCAA is really unable at this point in time to self-reform itself because the money is so large. They're going to do whatever they can to preserve this commercial monster, which is producing billions and billions of dollars. That's the bottom line. And so I want to also -- I ...

LEY - Unfortunately, we're out of time. I will say public disclosure that money you're talking about comes from the television networks. We're writing some of those checks as well. Tom McMillen, John Corcoran, thank you very much for joining us.

Next up, a check of the spirited reaction in last week's examination of the question of whether male coaches of women's' teams are deliberately pitted against each other in the NCAA women's brackets.

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