MANSFIELD: Shooting Hoops While Flying Close to the Sun

Basketball

The other day I listened to a segment on my favorite radio station, WCPN, but I was left scratching my head over the speciousness of the subject matter.

Here’s why: A few years ago, a couple of John Carroll University (JCU) students began spending their Friday evenings at the county’s Juvenile Detention Center playing basketball with the young prisoners. The number of JCU students participating in the program has grown over the years and now close to 40 students — male and female — participate.

The young JCU student being interviewed described how they take double cheeseburgers to the prisoners, who no doubt love receiving them and look forward to something other than the relatively drab institutional fare they eat all week. And after they shoot some hoops (the opposing teams comprise a mix of players from the university and the institution; it’s not “prisoners versus college students”) it’s time for mentorship and guidance — which all sounds very well and good, except that I sense an “Icarus effect” at play here.

You know, from your study of Greek mythology, the story of the hubris-filled young man who eschewed his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun with wings made of wax … and of course the sun melted them and he fell into the sea.

I get the sense that these young college students are proving how fearless they are by going into a locked institution and balling with some tough inner-city youth. And I don’t doubt that the experience might make them more empathetic to the plight of these incarcerated youth later in life. But the college students shouldn’t fool themselves; they are taking a lot more than they are leaving by their visits. While they are not abusing the locked-up young people, they really are not helping them as near as much as they could be either.

By way of example, years ago there was a midnight basketball program in Cleveland that got tons of press. The logic was, if the young inner-city men were balling at night they wouldn’t be out breaking the law. While the program continued for a number of years, it eventually ceased due to one glaring flaw: After the games were over, the young men were as still as broke as they were before they began playing.

The real problem is poverty; always has been, and always will be; and until it’s solved nothing is solved.

Now, can sports be used as segue to get young folks’ attention so that mentoring can begin to take place? Certainly. But the real work lies in helping these young people to master reading and math skills so they can finish high school or obtain a GED so they become employable. And after the young wards leave county custody, what are the JCU students doing — if anything — to continue their efforts to help?

The fact is, it’s real easy for a wayward young person to “be good” in a locked facility; there really aren’t very many options. The real challenge for them comes when they are released. And the most effective method of keeping these at-risk youth on track is by providing them with full or part-time employment, not by increasing their basketball skills.

What the JCU students are doing is a great first step. However, they need to take the next one if they are serious about helping these at-risk youth … or are they only being daredevils, seeing how close they can fly to the sun without getting burned? If that’s the case then shame on them.

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From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com

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