Sense, Not Dollars

Harvard's Nieman Fellows: Derrick Jackson

"When I have my son with me, people often ask if he's going to grow up and be a football player. I say, 'No, he's going to own a team someday.'"

Denver Bronco Wide Receiver Glenn Doughty, in an interview with reporter Derrick Jackson.

Derrick Jackson is as mild-mannered and deliberative as sports fanatics come, a far cry from the stereotypical sports writer who hovers over every play of every game.

A sports reporter for Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y. newspaper and one of the nation's largest dailies, Jackson says he wants to portray the athletes he covers as people, not just the makers of scores and statistics.

In America, achievement in sports promises a better way of life for the "underprivileged," says the 28-year-old Black reporter. But as he explained in a six-part series in Newsday three years ago, Blacks' progress and success in sports is often measured in "dollars, not sense."

This year a Nieman fellow at Harvard, the Newsday reporter adds that "a disturbing number of athletes fail to prepare for careers away from the field," concluding that "salaries aside, professional Black athletes with incomplete educations suffer the same problems as Blacks in America."

Excited about courses he's taking in social justice, discrimination, and fiction by Black women authors, Jackson is aiming to gain insight into why athletes and education have failed to mesh, and why people in sports have grown and adapted the way they have.

He adds: "Learning about other people's experiences and getting a broader base of cultural understanding will help me to articulate better the debate on why society in many cases has failed our sports heroes."

"The working of the human body doing majestic things is fascinating. But behind the artistry, there's a mind that has to be developed so that a person will be able to function 15 years down the road," says Jackson. In seeking out courses here to explore these issues. Jackson realizes that "Harvard wasn't created for you, you'll have to make it work for you."

He is taking a sociology junior tutorial and studying about the working class-studies that the feels might help him to cover, for example, professional bowling and "understand the stresses and strains of these athletes who consider themselves like blue-collar factory workers and are parely breaking even on the tour."

Indeed, these kinds of insight can appear unexpectedly, Jackson recalls a recent lecture by a Biology professor who traced the spread of imperialism in South America and Africa in part to the existence of rubber plants that created a need for cheap plantation labor.

Jackson describes sports as an arena in which some of "society's fundamental debates are also being waged." As an example, he discusses potential problems created by a recent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) decision to probibit freshmen from playing intercollegiate athletics unless they obtain a minimum score of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

"With kids coming from unequal backgrounds. I don't know how fair it would be to use this rule as the only criteria," he says. Jackson adds that the 700 cutoff mark would be especially detrimental to Black student athletes since "their national median is 707," about 100 points lower than that of whites. He adds, "What makes reports interesting to me is that an issue like the NCAA rule is applicable to public policy decisions like affirmative action, teacher entrance exams, and busing."

Similarly, Jackson draws a parallel between this controversy and the Reagan Administration's treatment toward Blacks.

"Reagan is saying that Blacks have had their chance through the civil rights movement, and if they haven't made it yet, it's too bad."

Jackson, however, is equally critical of some big universities with mammoth sports programs, where winning becomes all-important. "Coaches treat athletes like workers who must perform," he says. "It's crazy to have a 16-and 17-year-old with the pressure of a multi-million sports budget riding on his shoulders."

In his travels, Jackson found instances where an entire school's football squad had "C" average and "were on the ropes academically." This contrasts with Jackson's own experience with athletics. Though he just barely held a spot on his junior high basketball squad, he grew up in a city that encouraged participation. But the "bottom line was education." "Most people don't realize the difficulty our athletes face. After having been dictated to all through their school careers and because of their commitment to sports, they close down certain avenues of opportunities. For 99 percent of them it [sports] leads to a dead end."

Jackson describes his attraction to sports journalism as the "closest way to get involved with sports and also learn about people."

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in communications, Jackson immediately went to work in the sports department of the Milwaukee Journal. Soon after, in 1978, Jackson brought his typewriter and interest in New York sports rivaries to Newsday.

But after covering professional baseball, basketball, and tennis for two and a half years, he has grown less enthralled with the individual games," and prefers doing more comprehensive leatures and issue pieces. Although he thinks Baseball is the quintessential American sport, covering it, be admits, is "disastrous for family life." "Basketball was fun but I hated to travel in the snow." Jackson's own sports fantasy would be to play professional tennis. "You could lose a ton of matches and still make a lot of money playing in warm weather," Jackson jokes.

While at Harvard, Jackson will play a "hacker's game of tennis, and think about running in the Boston Marathon." He also plans to commute to his home in New York each weekend to visit his wife, Michelle Holmes '77, also a 1982 graduate of the Medical School.

When he returns to Newsday, Jackson might consider writing for another section of the newspaper to explore his interests outside of sports. But he adds, "Sports is still the premier drawing card of newspapers," says Jackson. "Even for the Law School students I talked to, the sports section is still the first thing they turn to."