I'm not here to beat up on the old guy.
Yes, he offended many people. But slapping him around would be beside the point.
I'm talking about Paul Hornung, a pro football hall of famer who won the Heisman trophy as a Notre Dame student in 1956. Last week, he offered an opinion of how his alma mater can return to football glory: lower the school's academic entrance requirements so more black athletes will be able to get in.
"We can't stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned, because we've got to get the black athlete," Hornung told a Detroit radio station. "We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete."
A spokesman for Notre Dame called the comments "insulting." Some sports pundits argued that Hornung was also flat out wrong. They say Notre Dame has no shortage of black football players and in fact has slightly more black kids than white ones on its spring practice squad. Moreover, the school reportedly graduates 82 percent of its black players, nearly twice the national average.
Which is interesting but also, I think, beside the point.
Because for my money, what makes Hornung's remarks offensive is not just the implicit assumption that black athletes are too naturally dumb to get into Notre Dame. It is also the implicit assumption that it's OK to ignore their alleged dumbness while exploiting their -- also natural -- physical prowess.
This is not a new line of thinking. Indeed, the idea that a black man was just a dumb sack of muscles would not have been out of place on the average antebellum plantation. And that's what intrigues me: the absolute consistency of our low expectations for black men. Especially as that relates to modern academic disparities that regularly find such men bringing up the rear.
Let me tell you a story that dates to my freshman year in college. My roommate was a white guy. Both of us had been academic stars at our respective high schools and for some reason, we were debating which of us was smartest. I suggested, smugly, that we compare SAT scores.
My roommate said I might have him there. He had flubbed his SATs. Had only scored in the mid 1200s. This stopped me.
Not just because my score was 300 points less. No, what really got me was the memory that mine was the second highest at my predominantly black high school. So high that teachers did everything except throw me a ticker tape parade.
I was congratulated so profusely that I thought I'd done well. It wasn't until that day in college that I realized I'd only done well for a black guy.
Test scores, I should point out, are not destiny. I started college at 15, got good grades, and was graduated four years later. My roommate, a mutual friend told me, dropped out.
Still, the memory rankles. It was the first time I realized that expectations for people like me are lower than for people like him.
Thirty years later, I teach at an historically black college where male students are a distinct minority. And I find myself wondering if the reason -- part of it, at least -- is that no one expects anything else.
Expectation is a powerful thing. So often, we live up -- or down -- to what other people see in us. Where black men are concerned, I think, the tendency to see little of intellectual value -- a tendency born on slave ships, nurtured on plantations and brought of age in grimy slums -- long ago became self-fulfilling prophesy.
Because it's not just Paul Hornung who has low expectations of black men. It's the teacher, it's the video channel, it's the cop, it's the judge and all too often as a result, it's black men themselves. When you are treated as less and taught that you are less, how surprising is it when you achieve less?
Which is why my remedy for academic disparity begins with two words.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.