By Stuart R. Wahlin
After granting Rock Valley College’s (RVC) football program a reprieve last year, RVC President Dr. Jack Becherer’s decision in January to terminate the program has been unpopular with many, the African-American community in particular.
Last August, Rockford school teacher Glen Patterson, an African-American and former RVC football player, asked aldermen to intervene by urging Becherer and the RVC Board of Trustees to reconsider ending the program last year. He asserted football is a powerful way to keep young African-American males out of trouble. He reiterated those sentiments to members of the Rockford City Council March 29.
“Of the millions of poor people who struggle to pursue the almost unattainable American dream of a good life and happiness, disproportionately, many of these are African-American males,” he said, noting African-American males are six times more likely than whites to be sent to prison. “This is a level which is not only unacceptable, but is unconscionable in any civilized society. The greatest deterrent to high levels of poverty and crime are education and jobs.
“The Rock Valley College football team has provided many of these young men the type of mentoring and character development that is not provided to them otherwise,” he added, encouraging aldermen to “stand up” for the young men. “We ask only for what is just and best for our community. We understand that a college football program is one of the best crime-prevention tools known to man.”
Patterson’s remarks then took a decidedly personal turn toward Becherer.
“Dr. Jack Becherer, the current president of Rock Valley College, is a cold and calculating, and extremely racially-insensitive, individual,” Patterson alleged. “Dr. Becherer lacks the important ingredients of compassion and sensitivity to the specific needs of this community, which he is supposed to be representing in its entirety.”
Reached for comment after Patterson’s remarks, Becherer responded, “Mr. Patterson is entitled to his opinions, and it’s part of my job to simply understand that people are going to say things that I don’t personally appreciate.”
Ald. Bill Robertson (I-14), however, denounced the personal attack.
“I find it very unfortunate that we’re attacking Dr. Becherer for the decisions that he’s made here,” Robertson said. “The personal attacks, I think, go far beyond what is reasonable in terms of arguing your position with regard to whether or not football actually produces the kinds of people that we need.”
Last fall, Robertson was asked by Patterson to arrange a meeting with Becherer after the junior college president had recommended ending the football program. Becherer agreed to let the team take the field the following season, but that for the program to remain, the team would have to raise its overall GPA to at least 2.0, increase its course-completion rate to at least 70 percent, and at least half would have to return the following semester. Players agreed, but the team fell short of attaining the first two goals.
“We gave the men an opportunity to, as a team, focus on academics, and some of the men did a great job, and most of the men, as we have seen the past two years, did not do such a great job,” Becherer reported. “And my concern all along is when you have about 65 men come as freshmen to play football, and their grades are, by and large, unacceptable, and their retention from first year to second year is less than 25 percent. Community colleges are about helping students academically succeed, and since most of those athletes came from out of district, or out of state, I think the burden of the college to make sure that they were benefiting from this experience was even greater.
“I’ve been consistent, saying that if in a program, only one out of four students academically benefit, if only one out of four students make it to the sophomore year, we have to take a good look at it and decide whether or not it’s worthwhile,” Becherer added. “At the end of the fall semester, when the team was supposed to have a team GPA of 2.0, their GPA was 1.7. It’s been too many students for too many years who have come to us and left with academic problems. In my mind…several of those men are going to look back three or four years from now and have the burden of a semester or a full year of poor grades, and possibly defaulting on a student loan, or possibly using federal aid, and as a result of that, coming back and not being eligible for aid. And so when they’re ready to study and learn, they’re not going to have the opportunity.”
Robertson argued: “Whether we like the decision he made or not, those were difficult and hard decisions, but he gave the team that additional year. He put the standards out there and told them what they had to do.”
Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13), an African-American, sided with Patterson, noting she’d recently urged the RVC Board to reconsider its decision.
“The cost to RVC for the football team is a nominal administrative cost, because the cost comes from the students’ fees,” she said. “Secondly, the academic rules for students of one sport must be the same for all sports at that institution. It is extremely disturbing to hear young men plead to a college board to keep a program—young men that are enrolled at this junior college where they chose to play sports, and they must succeed academically—young men that were given the challenge by the RVC president to improve their grades, and the football program would stay—young men that accepted the challenge, and more than half succeeded.
“Isn’t this what we want—an educated and healthy young populace in this country?” McNeely wondered. “This disconnect between the eager students and the unyielding president and board cannot be ignored, nor should it be allowed to continue. A higher-learning institution’s emphatic ‘no’ to students that are willing to learn and play is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated by the taxpayers of this city or nation.”
McNeely argued federal and state dollars should be withheld from programs at RVC.
“These [stimulus] dollars should not go to a two-year college that rejects football students that are improving academically,” she asserted, urging members of the community to sign a petition to spare the football program, further encouraging supporters to press Democratic U.S. senators Dick Durbin and Roland Burris, as well as President Barack Obama (D) and federal education officials, “to tell them that you want your tax dollars to go to colleges that encourage young people to gain their degree.”
She added: “Tell them that you want your tax dollars to go to colleges that encourage students of sports. Tell them that you want your tax dollars to go to colleges that don’t exclude certain types of students. Tell them that you want your tax dollars to go to colleges that make the effort and succeed in teaching all students, including your daughter and your son.”
Fellow African-American Ald. Venita Hervey (D-5) disagreed, arguing RVC is very deserving of tax dollars, adding that Becherer “had the courage to make a tough decision knowing that he was going to face harsh and sometimes cruel criticism.”
She also noted that RVC has plans for a downtown branch that will make college education more accessible to residents of the inner-city and Rockford’s far west side.
“For far too long, we have valued African-American men for their physical prowess, often times at the expense of their intellectual and academic achievement, and I, for one, am tired of it,” Hervey argued. “I am so tired, in our community, of people not placing—especially given the ills that face African-American men—academic attainment, intellectual development and career mindedness ahead of that infinitesimal possibility of achieving a pro sports career.”
As a result of her support for Becherer’s decision, Hervey said, she’s been accused of “selling out” by some in the African-American community.
“I don’t mind if that means I’m selling out,” she responded. “I would rather do that than sell another generation of young African-American men down the river of professional sports possibilities.”
Turning her attention to Patterson’s comments, Hervey concluded, “Even though some people may disagree with his decision, you do not have to denigrate and personally attack him in doing so.”
From the March 31-April 6, 2010 issue