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Monday, April 09, 2012

Al Cross: Basketball Is The "Opiate" That Keeps Kentuckians From Paying Attention To Their Shortcomings. True That!

Let's keep our eye on the ball, Kentucky
Written by Al Cross

LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was a very Blue week in the capital of Big Blue Nation, and all the “hoop”-la about a national basketball championship for the University of Kentucky brought to mind the only trip I ever made to Hickman, the most distant county seat in a state with too many counties.

It was cold, dank and rainy night, and a newcomer had only a vague sense of where the Mississippi River was, somewhere out there in a great, dark expanse where the Bayou du Chien was adding its trickle to the Father of Waters. I pulled up to the brightest-lit place, a little convenience store, and walked in.

The first thing I saw inside was the annual Kentucky Wildcats basketball calendar, occupying more wall space than anything else in the store. In a town more than twice as far from Lexington as it is from Memphis, it was still Kentucky — and the Cats were still the civil religion, a blue thread tying a diverse state together.

Last week, that religion reached new levels in the Superdome, as former University of Louisville coach Denny Crum wore blue Monday night and sat next to former UK coach Joe B. Hall, who had implored rabid fans on both sides to “bury the hate” before the two schools’ Saturday night face-off. After that game, Cardinal coach and ex-Wildcat coach Rick Pitino told arch-rival John Calipari of UK to bring the trophy home to Kentucky.

High praise to them all. For at least a couple of days, our civil religion included all of college basketball in Kentucky (even tournament teams Murray State and Western Kentucky), not just UK basketball.

Sociologists say a civil religion is a cohesive force that helps unite a diverse polity, the best example being the uniqueness, egalitarianism, democratic principles and sense of shared sacrifice that built the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, political philosophers called organized religion the opium of the people, used by those in power to distract the masses from their poverty and oppression. That should not be true of a civil religion, a set of beliefs shared by most citizens, but it is sometimes true in Kentucky. Basketball can be an opiate that makes us feel good about our state and pay less attention to its shortcomings.

Yes, it was a week to feel good, but now that it’s over, it’s time to reflect about doing good, and, as Coach Cal likes to say of his Cats, about getting better.

Let’s start with the universities that field the teams. They are the pinnacle of education in one of the least-educated states in America, and should be beacons of inspiration and opportunity for all. But their share of state support has steadily declined in recent years, and this year the General Assembly cut them another 6.4 percent, rejected a $25 million bond pool for maintenance Gov. Steve Beshear had proposed, and again refused to let them issue their own bonds for needed improvements.

Yes, those bonds would be included in the calculation of the state’s overall debt burden, which has gotten a bit high, risking the state’s credit ratings. So this year wasn’t the best time to let universities borrow on their own. But next time, the legislature should give them at least limited bonding power. (And I thought that before I went to work at UK almost eight years ago.)

Kentucky education has made much progress in the last 20 years, but we still have too many places where it is not valued highly enough. One reason for that is an archaic law, dating to the 1920s, that lets students drop out of school at 16.

Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, have campaigned to raise the mandatory school attendance age to 18, but Republicans in the state Senate have repeatedly blocked the idea. They note that many districts aren’t prepared to deal with kids who aren’t interested in school, but all the recent proposals would have given those districts time to adjust.

The problem isn’t really about money; it’s about attitude. A state that lets kids drop out at 16 is not a state that has fully embraced the idea of a well-educated populace, and one that lags behind the rest of the nation. As House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, said in pushing the latest anti-dropout bill, “We’ve got to change the culture.”

Our state’s educational shortcomings are partly responsible for its poor health status, one of the worst in the nation. The latest health rankings show Kentucky eighth in premature death, as measured the number of potential years of life lost before age 75. (If you want to see how your county ranks, go to this website: www.countyhealthrankings.org. If you want the numbers behind the rankings for each county, such as cancer death rates, go to www.kentuckyhealthfacts.org.)

For years, our bugaboo for bad health was tobacco, which for decades was our main cash crop. Eight years after repeal of the federal quotas and price supports that kept tens of thousands of small farmers growing tobacco, the number of growers has dwindled to around 5,000 and tobacco has little political punch. But smokers do, because we still lead the nation in smoking, at 29 percent of adults. About 30 localities have passed smoking bans, and a statewide ban actually got through a House committee this year, but as long as so many voters smoke, its prospects are hazy. It’s a Catch-22, because a statewide ban would surely reduce the number of smokers, and our long-term health problems.

One of those problems is abuse of prescription drugs, perhaps worse here than in any other state. The bill the legislature most needs to pass when it returns for one day Thursday is the one to crack down on pill mills, which got bollixed up as the veto recess began. It was encouraging to see a bipartisan statement Friday from Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Senate Republican Floor Leader Robert Stivers, Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, pushing for the bill. That’s the kind of teamwork that helped the Cats win.

There are many more examples of work that needs to be done, so let’s wear the blue and cheer the Cats (and the Cards, Racers, Hilltoppers and all the rest) but keep our eye on the ball that matters: making our state better.

Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.

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