On January 14, 1989, John Thompson, the Georgetown men’s basketball coach, walked off the court before his team’s game against Boston College at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Thompson, who choreographed the whole scene, came onto the court for warmups and then just after the player introductions flipped his signature white towel to one of his assistant coaches and headed for the locker room.
Thompson, who had led the Hoyas to three Finals Fours and the 1984 national championship, was protesting a recent vote by the NCAA that would deny athletic scholarships to freshmen who failed to qualify under the academic standards of Proposition 48, which called for an athlete to have a 2.0 grade-point average in high school and minimum 700 on the SAT. Under Proposition 48, which was enacted in 1986, athletes were eligible for athletic scholarships but they couldn’t practice or play with their team and would lose a year of eligibility.
It was estimated that African-Americans would make up 90 percent of the students impacted by the new rule.
“I feel it is a discriminatory thing, especially for a kid who is at a low socioeconomic level,” Thompson said.
Nearly 700 miles away from the Beltway in central Georgia, I was staging my own protest to the new rule in the pages of the Talon, my middle school newspaper. I was an aspiring sportswriter, an 8th grader, raised in a sport-obsessed culture, where a threat to Friday Night football games was a threat to the whole community. A mill could close but the games had to go on. Some of my first bylines had come in the Monroe County Reporter, a weekly paper, where I wrote mostly about youth football.
I don’t remember now exactly where I first learned about Coach Thompson’s stance on the changes to Proposition 48, but it’s likely that I saw it in the pages of Sports Illustrated or on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Growing up in the South I was a huge follower of SEC and ACC teams, but you couldn’t watch college basketball for most of the 1980s without taking notice of Big East men’s basketball. In 1985, three of the four teams in the Final Four were from the conference, including Georgetown and Villanova, who squared off in the championship game, where Villanova beat a Hoyas team lead by Patrick Ewing. A year earlier Thompson had become the first black coach to win the NCAA championship when his team beat Houston. Dean Smith and Bob Knight were big name coaches, but in my home Coach Thompson was the large-than-life figure looming over the game with his white towel over one shoulder.
When I filed my column on Proposition 48 it was met with silence and then it was killed by an English teacher filling in for the regular editor who was on leave with an illness. The teacher didn’t like that I had supported Thompson’s stance. When the school counselor, a woman named Sandra Hickman, caught wind that the column had been killed she called me to her office. She had two sons who were athletes and could sympathize with the impact that the ruling would have on students whose only way of paying for college was through an athletic scholarship. Mrs. Hickman also didn’t want the killing of the story to have an adverse impact on me or my development as a young journalist just finding my voice and learning to report stories. I don’t know what other conversations took place behind the scenes, but she made sure that my column ran in the next issue.
Years later, I told Coach Thompson this story when I was on his radio show. He was long retired from ushering boys into manhood through basketball, but he was still asking hard questions that were bigger than the Xs and Os of sports. He wanted to know how I had got into sportswriting and particularly how I had come to covering golf. I told him that it probably had something to do with the example he set as a coach and advocate for his players and that experience I had with the Proposition 48 column.
Thompson would end his boycott after two games when the NCAA agreed not to make the proposed changes to Proposition 48.
Coach Thompson, who died on August 30th at the age of 78, is a voice sorely needed now as many of our athletes are taking their own stances on social justice issues , but he said enough over his career to scores of student-athletes and reporters and millions who heard him as a TV basketball analyst that we are left with enough of his lessons to guide us through many storms.