The James Brooks Illiteracy ScandalAuburn University’s and the Cincinnati Bengals’ secret little ‘problem’ unveiled.
Cincinnati, OHIO — The official statement given via Jack Brennan, public relations director for the Cincinnati Bengals, is: “James Brooks was able to function and perform in his football role while with the Bengals. No one was aware there was a problem.” The “problem” he refers to was the revelation that occurred during a hearing in Judge Steve Martin’s Hamilton County, Ohio, courtroom last month regarding delinquent child support payments in excess of $110,000. James Brooks could not read the court documents; this after graduating from Warner Robins High School in Georgia in 1977 and after spending at least four years at Auburn University in Alabama.When asked by the judge how he graduated from Auburn, Brooks said, “I didn’t have to go to class.”If not knowing how to read was the secret James Brooks kept, “performing in his football role,” as Jack Brennan of the Cincinnati Bengals said, was something James Brooks, as a player, always made sure you remembered. Since his days at Warner Robins High School, James performed in his football role like no other athlete the school had or has ever seen. He is still the school’s all-time leading rusher, with 4,700 yards, and although it has been 22 years since he last ran up and down the football fields of Georgia, not many have forgotten his name. Even the neighboring high schools remember James Brooks.“James! James Brooks! Why everyone remembers James,” says North Side High School secretary Kathy Stanley, responding to a reporter who has mistakenly dialed the wrong Georgia high school while looking for background information on Brooks. Richard Finley, one of Brooks’ football coaches at Warner Robins High, says “James Brooks was a very serious competitor. Although he had reading problems, he was highly intelligent … he had good native intelligence.” When asked what he meant by native intelligence, Finley laughs and says, “He had good common sense. He couldn’t read too well, but he knew how to behave.” Finley says he isn’t quite sure how to interpret Brooks’ recent blunder, but speculates, “Life wears us all down. I believe his personal life played more of a part in his fall than his inability to read or communicate clearly.”
College Glory Despite SetbacksWhatever the reason for his recent troubles, it is clear that Brooks’ inability to read or communicate clearly did not hinder his success in high school or college athletics. In 1977, Brooks left Warner Robins High school a graduate and a hero to begin a four-year college football career on a sports scholarship at Auburn University. Within two years, the NCAA released a seven-page press release announcing its decision to put Auburn University on probation for two years due to a long list of violations within its football program that began in 1974 and culminated in 1977, James Brooks’ freshman year. The most damaging charge was that, “a representative of the university’s athletic interests offered a large cash payment in exchange for the young man’s signature on a conference letter of intent.” Although the NCAA 1979 press release didn’t name names, Wally Renfro, director of public relations at the NCAA says that Auburn University had submitted erroneous certifications of eligibility for the players on the football team. “Much has changed since 1979,” he says. “It’s exactly stories like these that led membership to develop a reform package, with Proposition 48 being one of the major pieces of eligibility legislation. Now, [because of Proposition 48] if you don’t achieve a minimal grade-point average in core courses and minimal score results on a standardized test, you can’t play sports at the college level. Our goal has been to prevent things like [what happened at Auburn] from happening again.” In a related development in Philadelphia, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower ruling last month that would have ended the NCAA’s use of eligibility requirements for athletic participation and scholarship availability for freshmen. The federal district judge had concluded that the rules had a disparate effect on African Americans. But the appeals panel decided that since the NCAA was not the recipient of federal funding in this particular case, the organization was not subject to discipline under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though the NCAA is currently reviewing those standards, the appellate court ruling allows the standards to remain intact.
The two-year probation cost Auburn. It prohibited the football team from participating in any post-season competition or from appearing on national television during the 1979 and 1980 years. It also, quite possibly cost Brooks the Heisman trophy. By the time he left Auburn in 1980 he was the team’s all-time leading rusher with 3,523 yards.
Everybody Knew …Back at Warner Robins High School, Lynn Shephard, secretary of more than 20 years is quick to point out that, “Reading was always [Brooks’] problem. No one here knew how he got into Auburn … much less how he made it through. We knew he couldn’t read. There was just no way. “Back then he barely made it out of our school. In the 1970s we didn’t have the same scholastic standards that are mandated now. We could accommodate children who had difficulty reading and writing. You watered it down … in order to make them feel they were accomplishing something. You taught them what they could learn. You helped them be as successful as they could be. “I think James can still learn to read if he put his mind to it … like he did with football,” she adds.When asked to react to Brooks’ recent troubles with the law, David Howel, Auburn’s current director of athletics, said through his secretary that, “there is no one here at Auburn who was in a position of authority during that time who can comment on Mr. Brooks. However, we have had several of Mr. Brooks’ teammates calling who were saddened and surprised by his current misfortune.”Doug Barfield, who was head football coach of the Auburn Tigers from 1976 through 1980, says that at the time, many people knew Brooks was illiterate. “Even when I met with his mother and recruited him,” he says, “reading was a concern on both James’ and our part. “We wanted to help him. But we wanted to help him above board. We started him taking remedial reading and writing programs upon his arrival at Auburn.” However, when asked about Brooks’ courtroom statement that he didn’t have to go to class, Barfield says that just isn’t true. “We did everything we could to help him, as a player and a person, because he put forth such great effort. I find it hard to believe James.” Chuck Brake was a freshman defensive end from Macon, Ga., when his path crossed with James Brooks at Auburn University. He is both angered and saddened by Brooks’ recent troubles. “I am shocked, angered and disappointed with James,” he says, “We attended class together. We all looked up to James. I never would have guessed James had trouble with reading or writing.” When asked about Brooks’ comment that he did not have to attend class while at Auburn, Brake says that he remembers a time during the end of Brooks’ last season that James began to not show up. “Otherwise, James was always in class,” he says. Cindy Saulsbury, one of the four mothers of Brooks’ five children, says she first realized the extent of Brooks’ reading problem in 1987, when she gave him a greeting card and he was unable to read it. “I began noticing things, things like he wouldn’t ever read a menu when we went out to dinner.” When Saulsbury then began asking Brooks how he made it through Auburn, he told her he would give another student his college identification card and they would take the test in his place. Research papers and essays, she says, were always given to him in advance, yet he would hand them in as his own. “This is something he bragged about,” she says.
Maintaining the Veil of Secrecy After he left Auburn in 1980, Brooks began earning his living as a professional football player in the NFL, initially playing with the San Diego Chargers in the 1981 season. Yet, it was with the Cincinnati Bengals that he ultimately signed million-dollar contracts, quickly developing into an All Pro running back and playmaker. Brooks is still the Bengals’ all time leading rusher with 6,447 yards and one of the key members of the Bengals’ 1989 Super Bowl team. Tom Dinkle, a former teammate of James Brooks on the 1985 Bengal team, and now a member of FOXSPORTS, remembers his former teammate as an exceptional athlete. “Some athletes just live on their talent until it runs out, but James was different, he combined his talent with an incredible work ethic and discipline. No one ever wanted to work out with James, he would just run you to death.”“James would do the stadium steps at Riverfront year round … not even Anthony Munoz did more,” says Dave Lapham, a former Bengal who is now a sports analyst, of Brooks’ legendary workouts. However, when asked about Brooks’ ability to read and communicate, the conversation grew quiet and more serious. “James was never much of a conversationalist, he had a problem with his diction, so he was so tough to interview,” Lapham says. “But he was always a key performer, so you wanted to talk with him. He was a very smart guy, but you could tell it was the field where he learned the play-book. If James had to rely solely on the Bengal’s written play-book, he would have had difficulty knowing his assignments. We all knew James struggled, but it wasn’t something we ever talked about.“He knew enough to get by.”Cincinnati Bengals long-time running backs coach, Jim Anderson put it this way, “As a coach, you know individuals learn in different ways. So whatever and however James learned the offensive system, the important thing is he learned it.” When pressed about whether Brooks could read, Anderson says, “I never put James in a position where he had to show me if he could read.”David Fulcher, a former teammate of Brooks’ during the 1989 Super Bowl says he didn’t know if James had difficulty reading or writing. “James was real quiet. He had speech difficulties and that was probably a big reason he did not give interviews.”
The Road AheadWhatever the severity of Brooks’ reading problems, most say it is something he can overcome.Michael Barrett, the attorney who is handling his case is quick to point out, “James is not learning disabled, he just was never taught.”“Any form of illiteracy has dramatic effects, no matter what the reason, be it a learning disability or having never been taught,” says Kathy Knall, Trainer of South West Adult Basic Learning Education Center, the Ohio State agency that provides professional development and support to teachers of adult education. “Most people who do not learn to read as youths give up. There is such a feeling of failure that their attitude toward learning is just terrifying. The idea of furthering or starting their education over, which will ultimately lead to better employment opportunities, is most often time seen as too much to overcome.”Knall also talks of the shroud of secrecy in which illiteracy is wrapped. “It’s a very tough thing for anyone to admit. It’s like a disease, no one wants to talk about it.” But talking about it is what needs to happen for someone to overcome it, she adds. It’s usually a transition in someone’s life, going to jail, becoming a parent, these are the things that prompt someone to do something about it, to change their life.After serving nearly three months of his six-month sentence at the Hamilton County Justice Center, Brooks is currently assigned to a work release program for the remainder of his sentence. Auburn University President, William Muse recently invited Brooks back to Auburn to finish his bachelor’s degree as part of the University’s Operation Follow Through, which encourages athletes to return to finish their degree tuition free. If Brooks decides not to return to Auburn, the University has also offered to pay for the literacy classes that have been ordered by Hamilton County Judge Steve Martin.The Registrar’s office at Auburn says that Brooks left the University in 1980 without a degree in his chosen major of vocational distributive education.
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