March Madness is about to enter its third and final weekend. Of the sixty-eight teams invited to play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, only four remain. Seemingly everyone everywhere is talking about the Final Four, even folks who display little or no interest in college basketball throughout the other 49 weeks of the year.
In the midst of this frenzy it’s worth noting that there’s another, very admirable version of college basketball that has nothing to do with the road to the Final Four. I’m talking about “Books and Basketball,” a program in which Washington University students provide after-school tutoring to students at local public schools.
The program was started by Paul Johannet, a Washington U senior from New York. After reading a story about a young man in Oakland, California who said that his participation in sports had helped him avoid drugs and violence, Paul concluded that a similar approach could work in St. Louis.
He began by gathering four friends who joined him in playing basketball once a week with students from Ford Elementary School in north St. Louis. The basketball games were always preceded by sessions of academic work, help with homework or assistance in preparing for tests. The initial program was so successful that it soon expanded from one day a week to four days and to other public schools. In less than three years the number of tutors grew from five to 85, representing every undergraduate class at the university. Successor leadership is now in place to assure that the program continues after Paul graduates in a few months. And the program is also on firmer financial footing, having attracted foundation support from outside the university community.
Books and Basketball already has several benefits.
First, students who are struggling in school might not otherwise seek the help they need. The fact that they have to attend the tutoring sessions in order to play in the basketball games that follow gives them a strong incentive to do so.
Second, one of the reasons some students have trouble in school is the absence of positive, adult role models in their lives. The time these students spend with young adults from Washington University exposes them to role models who take an interest in them and help awaken them to their own potential.
In addition, participating in “Books and Basketball” gives students in elementary, middle and high schools a more realistic perspective on college in general and college sports in particular than they might get from their peers or from popular culture. Paul Johannet, like thousands of other young men, is a good basketball player. He is not, however, at the level of the select few who are capable of playing on teams that compete for the NCAA championship. Even within the ranks of the select few who do play for these teams the vast majority will never play in the NBA.
The message young students can take away from Books and Basketball is simple. Going to college is a realistic goal, while the likelihood of playing in the Final Four is exceedingly remote. The probability of playing in the NBA even more so.
“Books and Basketball” is an appropriate name. In this tutoring program run by Washington University students, academics and athletics are inextricably tied together. Such is often not the case in some of the athletic programs that feature so prominently in March Madness.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.