A Football Player Tackles Illiteracy


Dexter Manley is used to performing in public, but when he did so last week, he wept nonetheless.

Manley is a star defensive end for the Washington Redskins, a colorful sports “personality” who earns in excess of $600,000 a year.

His life has been far from blameless. He was briefly suspended from football for substance abuse and over the years has pleaded guilty to such things as fraud, reckless driving and impersonating a police officer.


But he also visits kids in hospitals and recognizes that he is a role model for thousands of young people. So maybe that’s why he agreed to go before a Senate subcommittee and talk about illiteracy in America.

He should know all about it. Up until three years ago, Manley, 31, could barely read or write--even though he graduated from grammar school and high school, even though he had no trouble getting into college and reaching his senior year.

The schools he went to did not really care. His employer might not have known. The NFL tests its athletes for drugs; it does not test its athletes for literacy.

Manley presented his testimony, sometimes tearfully, before a panel chaired by U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), (and no relation to me), who is sponsoring the Illiteracy Elimination Act of 1989. The goal of the bill is to wipe out illiteracy in America by the year 2000. It could cost up to $200 million in its first year. That sounds like a lot, but it is a lot cheaper than a flotilla of aircraft carriers, which costs billions.

We don’t really know how many people in America are illiterate. Some experts say 23 million to 27 million Americans are functionally illiterate, though that figure and even the definition of functional illiteracy are controversial.

Nearly everybody agrees there’s some sort of problem. Nearly everybody agrees that there is little reason for a nation such as ours to have the illiteracy rate it does. A current best seller on the French Revolution points out that France in 1789 had a higher literacy rate than does America in 1989.


Manley was 28 when he decided to learn how to read. And he only did so because he saw Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann get his leg broken in a career-ending sack. (Ironically, sacking quarterbacks is what Manley does for a living.)

“I mean, it was one play and it was over for him,” Manley told a reporter. “If that happened to me, what did I have?”

Finally, Dexter Manley had awakened. Up until that moment, he thought he was a rich man: nice car, nice home, lots of spending money. But all of a sudden, he finally realized how poor he was.

As a child in Houston, Manley had a learning disability that went undiagnosed. His only memories of grammar school consist of playing with blocks. Manley went to a high school that was known for its football team, and he had no trouble passing his courses.

“Well, I had a lot of tutoring then,” he told the senators by way of explanation. “But I would suspect I was just passed through.”

Yeah. I would suspect so. Because on his ACT tests for college, Manley got a 6. That is not bad for a kid who could not make out most of the words on the test, but the mean composite score for the ACT is 18.2. Yet Manley had no trouble getting into college. In fact, a lot of colleges wanted him. Manley chose Oklahoma State University where he became a marketing major and, once again, had little trouble passing his courses, advancing from year to year and becoming a senior.


He still didn’t know how to read and write above a second-grade level, but he was a college senior leading his team in tackles-for-losses (just as he did as a sophomore and junior). He left school about 50 credits short of graduation when he was drafted by the Redskins.

Now, after three years of tutoring, Manley can read at the ninth-grade level. This football season, he will donate $250 to a Washington reading program for each quarterback sack he makes.

When you look at it one way, Manley is a success story: He makes gobs of money and is a sports hero.

But look at it another way and you realize that all his life he has been cheated. Education in this nation is universal, free and mandatory. Unless you are an athlete, especially a black athlete. And in that case, America gives you the right to be uneducated.

At every level of his football career, people were demanding that Manley develop his body. He had to maintain certain body weights, certain levels of performance, certain speeds to continue to play football. And because it was demanded of him, Manley did it.

But nobody ever demanded that he develop his mind. Nobody ever demanded that he read or write. And so he did not.


If Dexter Manley could not “read” a football offense, he was told to practice and practice and practice until he could. But if he could not read a book, he was told it did not matter.

And that is why I am infuriated every time I read about a coach or a legislator saying how stricter rules for academic performance by student athletes “discriminate” against minority kids. We can’t expect them to do well in school, they say. They are poor. They are black. Don’t expect too much from them.

But what they are really saying is that as long as these kids perform on the playing field, we don’t really care how they are performing in the classroom. We care about their bodies, not their minds. They are just meat.

Yes, we give them money. As long as they can play. And when their limbs are broken, they get tossed aside. If they have saved some money, fine. If they have not, tough luck.

What, on the other hand, does reading give you? “A sense of self-worth,” Paul Simon said. “Dexter Manley realized that. All along, he was bright. Now he is bright and can read.”

A lot of people just passed Manley along through the educational system. Few of them, I am guessing, did it out of a sense of crass exploitation. Many more were convinced they were helping him.


They were not.

It is not racist or wrong to demand academic excellence from all of America’s children.

It is racist and wrong not to.