I’m not aware of anyone seriously challenging the fact that it’s damned near impossible to successfully compete at the highest levels in Division I athletics, without creating different entrance requirements for scholars and scholar athletes. How else to explain the extraordinary consistency of the University of Michigan football team, or the Stanford University basketball teams. These special kids generate huge revenues for their schools and help create both prestige and recognition, critical tools for recruiting the best and brightest applicants.

While not impossible for a 350-pound all-American nose tackle, who works out six hours a day and expects to be a high NFL draft choice, to also be an intellectual, it just isn’t likely. The overwhelming majority of world-class basketball players are black, explained perhaps by the fact that virtually every urban neighborhood and project is littered with low cost, low maintenance courts and it takes only extraordinary athleticism to play the game well. No country clubs, expensive equipment or multipurpose stadiums required.

Sport aside, American colleges and universities are the best in the world, often offering high school graduates, even today, their first real opportunity to live in a multiracial, multicultural environment. While our secondary schools have technically been desegregated since the 50’s, the distribution of wealth tends to cluster immigrants and minorities into substandard school systems, which are anything but diverse. Great schools, like the University of Michigan, recognize extending extra help to Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, the rural poor and blacks to join their community is an opportunity for these kids to overcome their environment and acquire credentials which will allow them to compete successfully with their more privileged classmates. It also establishes a diversified university community which reflects the complexion of the real world, from which everyone benefits equally.

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court will review a lawsuit on appeal which challenges the University of Michigan’s policy to consider race when deciding to accept students in their undergraduate school and in their law school. Several ostensibly qualified white students believe they have been denied admission in favor of minority students who they feel are less qualified.

We are not talking about a point guard, power forward, quarterback or tight end. To do so would bring down the wrath of the alumni and the administration. Even our most prestigious universities – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Virginia, not known for their athletic prowess, encourage legacies. While they might not accept the son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter of a powerful and wealthy alumnus if he or she were a complete dolt, Harvard doesn’t reject many Kennedy’s, nor Yale, Bush’s for that matter.

In a school of 50,000 like Michigan, it makes good sense to look beyond grade point averages, SAT scores and extracurricular activities. A high B average from the son of a single black mother living in a Brooklyn housing project may reflect a greater accomplishment than a 4.0 from a CEO’s son in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Great universities take into consideration the quality of the faculty, infrastructure and resources available to minority students in most school systems, and they should.

Colin Powell, the leading moderate in the Bush administration, believes too much affirmative action is not a good thing, but some is clearly required to level the academic playing field, not just the gridiron.

If Bush proves to really be the “education president”, if our states are prepared to reorient their spending priorities in favor of education, over time we may be able to achieve diverse student bodies with color blind standards. Until that time it is right and proper to give those most in need of some extra help the opportunity to play.

Trent Lott apparently believes the nation would be better if Strom Thurman had been elected president in 1948 and implemented his segregationist agenda. It is unlikely, in that event, that Colin Powell would be Secretary of State, or that Clarence Thomas would be in a position to review the University of Michigan’s entrance policies. It is also virtually certain that the University of Miami would not be competing for its sixth national championship on New Year’s Day.