ATLANTA --- The conversation at a recent feel-good luncheon sponsored by the University of Georgia Athletic Association kept turning away from how to inspire black elementary students to reach for college and instead back to how the school treats kids who are already on campus as athletes.
Carla Williams, the assistant athletic director, came up with the idea for the luncheon, held in Atlanta's Vine City neighborhood at the historic Paschal's restaurant that was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders.
Invited were ministers, elementary-school principals and youth counselors who mingled with former athletes.
"We wanted to get a diverse group here that can impact children," she said.
The initiative began in the spring when the association rented billboards highlighting graduating sports figures. The Atlanta luncheon was timed to provide networking on the eve of next month's start to the elementary school year.
Her plan is to use a little of the star power of the athletes to show possibilities to youngsters before they give up on school.
"We want to make sure children see that African-Americans are doing great things and have been for decades," she said.
UGA can use the help. It's admitting its largest class of black and Hispanic freshmen this fall, but neither represent the school's largest minority --- Asian --- or even crack 10 percent of the student body.
The luncheon's panel of coaches and alumni started things off with the predictable statements about the importance of a college degree and how special it is to be part of the Bulldog Nation. Once the questions and comments from the guests started, the topic began to stray from how to use athletes as role models to how the school has a reputation of simply using athletes.
Glen Ford, a Bulldog corner back who graduated in '99, put it bluntly.
"We still have the negative stigma that 'it's still Georgia.' ... , As an African-American, it comes back to me from African-Americans that 'it's still Georgia.' Is there something we can do that can kind of cut that stigma down a little because you don't hear it about North Carolina, you don't hear it about Auburn or Florida, but you hear it about Georgia," he said.
"... I talk to a lot of athletes, and they're 'yeah it's great while you're at Georgia, but what about after I leave?'"
UGA's reputation among blacks is that the school's only interest in them is their contribution to the success of the football team or basketball team rather than as an individual, Ford explained.
James Brown, a football player "from the Herschel Walker days," acknowledged that the characterization isn't true, at least in his case. He took advantage of UGA's policy of allowing scholarship athletes who left without graduating to return to school tuition-free. The school even buys the textbooks.
"After running across athletes from other schools, you find out that the other schools aren't doing that, the other NCAA 1-A schools aren't doing that," he said, apologizing for not standing because of his many playing injuries.
It wasn't just ex-football players with that assessment. Donald Hartry, who played basketball at UGA and is now an executive with AT&T, has encountered the same perception Ford described.
"Most of the minority student athletes are scared to go to the University of Georgia," he said. "They're thinking that a degree is out of their reach. We don't turn out enough athletes with degrees, is what they're thinking."
The issue is more than whether athletes graduate. What the students care about is their ability to make a living after their playing days end, according to the various comments.
Football head coach Mark Richt outlined some of the efforts he and his staff go to, from arranging job shadowing to hosting career-day presentations for all 500 student athletes, not just his players. And when they apply for a job, he'll offer a recommendation.
"I'm constantly making calls for these kids," he said.
But he added, there's a limit to what he and the other coaches can do.
"Sometimes they've got to understand that they've got to do their part, too," he said. "... I tell them, 'I don't have time to find you a job.'"
The whole atmosphere surrounding UGA athletes is a factor, according to Thomas Brown, a football player who Richt hired as assistant strength-and-conditioning coach. Few people ask athletes about their career plans, Brown said. They only ask about sports. As a result, athletes want to take easy courses rather than useful ones.
But the comment that triggered spontaneous applause from the guests came when Hartry observed that the cocoon athletes stay in at Georgia gives them little contact with other students. So they don't know how to make relationships or have contacts with classmates that can benefit them in their off-the-field careers the way the typical UGA grad does.
The dilemma for student athletes is whether they're more student or more athlete. Women's basketball coach Andy Landers was on the panel as proof they can be both since his program boasts a 100 percent graduation rate.
But the luncheon designed to fire up former athletes to help recruit grammar-schoolers yielded a frank discussion that gave coaches and administrators something to think about on their ride back to Athens.
Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.