As news broke Wednesday night of the involvement of UW recruit Tony Wroten Jr. in an alleged case of academic fraud at hoops powerhouse Garfield High School in Seattle, I immediately was transported back to July 8, 2010, when LeBron James announced to the world that he was "taking (his) talents to South Beach."
Unlike most who stared in disbelief at the spectacle James had created, I found myself on the other side - more awe of the public outcry than anything that actually happened on "The Decision."
Not because what James did wasn't worthy of ridicule; it was, and he deserved every ounce of public backlash that came his way. No, what surprised me was simply this.
How is it that people are yet bewildered by the audacity of athletes, celebrities and their hangers-on in our culture?
It's a wonder, really, given how often so many of them do completely off-the-wall stuff. As a former working journalist who has had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain from time to time, I can't stress enough what kind of alternate reality these people live in. James' folly was obvious to everyone but James and his advisers, which should tell you everything you need to know about their existence in a world most of can't comprehend - although we try our best by watching programs like "Hard Knocks" or "Keeping Up With The Kardashians."
Most of the time, it just leaves us shaking our heads at those wacky rich people (hey there, Charlie Sheen!). Butsometimes it just touches a nerve, which is exactly what Wednesday night's Wroten news did for me. The whole situation displays blatant enabling in the one institution where we're supposed to be able to count on integrity - our schools - and it's pretty disgusting.
The Wroten story, as told in a nice piece of investigative work by Mason Kelley at The Seattle Times, details incredible failure by everyone involved - from the principal to Wroten himself. It's just another ridiculous example of the kind of special treatment bestowed on athletes that leads to their sense of entitlement as adults, which in turn leads to their boorish behavior when they have millions of dollars to play with - or, worse, leads to their antisocial behavior when they flame out and don't get the millions they were so certain of.
Let's start with athletics director Jim Valiere, who has since been fired (only in part because of this). His job is supposed to be more administrative than anything else - hire coaches, schedule stuff such as games and event staff, and make sure athletes are eligible. Whether you believe his story that he's being made a scapegoat or the district's story that he engaged in academic fraud (and other indiscretions), the fact remains that his attempt to go the "extra mile," so to speak, for Wroten is beyond the boundaries of his job. Would Valiere have done this sort of thing for any athlete at Garfield? Doubtful.
The message sent by Valiere's actions? Wroten is special.
Or how about the principal? Ted Howard maintains his actions were the right thing to do. "I felt like we owed those kids and parents credit and also an education," he told Kelley. Oh really? What about the other students in the school who did the right thing but still have to share a room with 35 other kids? Or what about their teachers who are facing a 3 percent salary reduction at the end of this year?
What do you owe them?
The message sent by Howard's actions? Wroten is special.
Instead of asking how he can serve one of his students as he would serve any other student, the only thing Howard is asking is what he owes a superstar athlete who earned his D and took no personal responsibility to fix it before it really became a problem.
Said Howard: "How were the kids going to get the credit and not be penalized?"
Excuse me? Wroten was not, and is not, a victim here.
How complicit Wroten was in Valiere's actions are a matter of conjecture - the story suggests he was rather unaware of what was going on. But that's the problem: He most certainly should have been aware. Not necessarily of what Valiere was doing, but of the larger issue.
Wroten knew he was going to be playing college basketball. It's his job to know what he needs to get into not just UW, but any college. They all require two years of a world language. And yet Wroten, with a transcript in his hand and all kinds of literature at his fingertips about requirements, submitted his senior year registration without being signed up for a second year of Spanish.
If you're tempted to blame the adults around Wroten for this oversight, then you're just as bad as Valiere and Howard. Counselors do the best they can to make sure everyone gets what they need, but there are probably four counselors for 1,900 students at Garfield. Unfortunately, their top priority is simply making sure kids graduate. Our current educational culture mandates that's who's on their radar. Wroten isn't that kid. You can say Valiere, or coach Ed Haskins, or even Wroten's parents should have helped Wroten by simply making sure he was enrolled in the correct classes, and you'd probably have a case.
But the bottom line is this, and it is inarguable: The student has to take personal responsibility for his future. We're not talking about some complicated NCAA Clearinghouse issue on this one. We're talking about a basic - BASIC - college admissions requirement. At the very least, Wroten is guilty of a gross case of willful ignorance.
The message sent by Wroten's actions? I'm special.
It's a notion he didn't exactly dispel when he took to Twitter in January and said, "just me and my 2 bros. we got a 3 person Spanish class. #Niccceeee." Or when he took to Twitter again on Wednesday and lashed out at Kelley in the immediate aftermath of the story being made public.
My guess? Wroten figured the Spanish thing would be taken care of for him, just like everything is always taken care of for him. It's an outgrowth of the athletics culture in the country, exemplified to the worst degree by AAU basketball. I don't want to paint the entire Amateur Athletic Union with a broad, black stroke, because is not an inherently bad thing. But the fact remains that within that system, the truly special talents, such as Wroten and James, are catered to in every possible way from the moment they're identified by someone as a superlative athletic ability - usually in pre-teen years.
These athletes benefit from their abilities in the ways that matter to a boy - clothes, shoes, food, travel - while they simultaneously are exploited by coaches and other hangers-on who see the best of the best as a potential gravy train. Forget about the metaphorical Powerball of the NBA; a coach of an AAU team who merely has a superstar player or two on his team can command a six-figure salary thanks to shoe company sponsorships.
There's always somebody somewhere who sees these guys as their meal ticket, and as such, they're given whatever they want. Given the backgrounds many of these players come from, it's no surprise they ask very few, if any, questions.
Wroten didn't ask any questions. Everyone else asked the wrong ones.
And for that, they all deserve an F.