Porto: Sports hero Jan Kemp

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(HOST) As basketball and hockey seasons wind down and baseball season approaches, commentator Brian Porto reminds us of an unlikely – but inspiring – sports hero.

(PORTO) When I heard that Jan Kemp – perhaps my greatest sports hero – had died in Georgia in December at age 59, I was reminded of the old saying that "only the good die young." Kemp was an unlikely sports hero. As far as I know, she couldn’t run fast, jump high, find daylight between hulking defensive linemen, or go to the hoop with authority. But if heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary things, then Jan Kemp was surely a hero, and college sports are more compatible with higher education because of her.

Kemp was teaching remedial English at the University of Georgia at Athens in the early 1980s when she discovered that athletes who had failed her courses were nonetheless able to remain at the University and even to compete. She complained to her superiors about this preferential treatment, but instead of thanking her for honesty and professional integrity, they fired her in 1982 for throwing a monkey wrench into the University’s commercial sports machine.

Will Kemp, Jan’s 26-year-old son, has described his mother as someone who "was always fighting for what she believed was right." True to her nature, she fought back in 1983, suing the University for wrongfully firing her. The lawsuit made her a pariah in Athens by airing the University’s dirty laundry in public and, in the minds of many fans, threatening the Bulldogs’ continued athletic success, especially in football. A newspaper columnist wrote that Kemp should be "the next teacher in space" not long after teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger disaster.

But the lawsuit also made Kemp a hero to supporters of reform in college sports by exposing a system that encouraged universities to admit students who read at a fourth-grade level, to profit by their athletic labor for four years, and then to discard them, still uneducated, four years later. At the end of a bruising trial, the jury not only awarded Kemp substantial damages, but also required the University to reinstate her, and she returned to work there in 1986. Unfortunately, a back injury suffered in a car accident in 1990 forced her to retire early, and in 2006, at age 57, she had to move into a nursing home after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The legacy of Jan Kemp’s lawsuit is mixed. On the one hand, she forced Georgia and other colleges to pay more attention to educating their athletes. On the other, the author of a doctoral dissertation on her trial says, "We’re not really willing to change the core of things" in college sports, so Kemp may have won a battle while losing a war. Still, if Kemp lost the war, she nonetheless fought her particular battle bravely and with the utmost integrity. Now there is a sports hero we can all believe in!

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