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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tré Watkins

Return To Glory: Black College Athletes and Social Inequities

 The term “sports industrial complex” aptly describes the exploitative nature of big-time college sports’ reliance on a primarily Black, unpaid labor force to generate billions of dollars in annual revenue. The Power 5 Conferences represent what C. Wright Mills would label the power elite of college sports: a self-serving minority who dictate the decisions that will lead to financial rewards for the few. While Black men are overwhelmingly underrepresented among the student body of these universities, they comprise nearly 60% of the football and basketball teams. More alarming is the 53% degree completion rate for Black male student-athletes, which is 22 points less than the national average for undergraduates. Northwestern University is the only Power 5 school with equitable graduation numbers for Black and White athletes.  

Disparities in degree attainment for Black male student-athletes stem from a multitude of issues, including the early socialization of Black males towards sports, heavy recruitment of athletes who attend academically deficient high schools, and a lack of academic support from college coaches and administrators. It is known that standardized scores and academic motivation are significant indicators of the educational success of future college student-athletes. Researchers have found that Black athletes are generally recruited from less academically competitive schools and enter college with lower high school GPAs, which are strong predictors of academic success.  Further indication that universities are complicit in a systematic effort to generate profit from Black student-athletes lies in the stories of the students themselves.  In a qualitative study focused on the experiences of high-achieving Black male student-athletes, researchers found that unsupportive coaching staff, unhealthy “must-win” cultures, and hostile treatment from faculty were all barriers to success for these young men. Similarly, one scholar-athlete at one of our nation’s most prestigious universities, Stanford, shared his experience with the academics/athletics paradigm.

Last year in the Cal game, I played terribly. After the game, I remember my position coach singling me out, saying that if I spent as much time in the film room and lifting weights as I did studying biology, I would be a damn good football player. He went on to say that my performance was awful and that the following week, I would lose my starting position.

The life of a student-athlete in revenue-producing sports has many pitfalls. Time demands associated with sports can often detract from educational opportunities inside and outside the classroom. It is essential to recognize the value of creating networks outside of the sports sanctuaries in which athletes are often confined. Black student-athletes who excelled both on the field and in their studies identified faculty support as a critical factor in their success. These athletes sought recognition for their academic achievement as much as their on-court exploits. They went out of their way to develop positive relationships with their professors despite being reprimanded by coaches for dedicating the necessary time to academics.

Depictions of former highly celebrated college athletes who suffered great tragedies in their post-collegiate careers, like Aaron Hernandez, Clinton Portis, and Joe McKnight, are becoming an all too common occurrence in the daily news headlines. One can only wonder if their fates would have been altered if they had achieved equal success in the classroom.  For those that would decry the “entitled” athlete, one need not look further to the fact that the overrepresentation of Black males in sports at all levels has perpetuated the myth of Black athletic dominance, which has ramifications for all Black students who become targets for the “dumb jock” stereotype.  The immensely popular Netflix Original Last Chance U depicts the stories of Black male football players competing at the community college level for another shot at the D-1 Ball. Shows like these often perpetuate these negative stereotypes, giving audiences a narrow viewpoint of the athletes’ true selves. Counter-narratives that center the experiences of Black male student-athletes who managed to excel in their academics could help reverse these negative depictions of Black male collegians, the quintessential example being Myron Rolle, the former number one-rated high school recruit who went on to become an All-American safety at Florida State, NFL draft pick, Rhodes Scholar and neurosurgeon. Studies indicate that highlighting cases of educational achievement of Black male athletes has successfully generated positive social media support. 

Recent approaches to achievement gaps among Black male student-athletes are holistically based, primarily focusing on individual development and mentorship. However, student-athlete-centered interventions shift the focus from systemic issues. They may imply that fault should be assessed by students instead of the institutions that are charged with preparing them for successful careers. Lack of oversight from coaches, administrators, and faculty evokes a spirit of collaboration within sports programs, which can lead to negative behaviors such as cutting class. However, some experts have suggested that the NCAA levy significant penalties for low academic performance as motivation to coach staff. However, substantial steps have yet to be taken to realize this endeavor.  

 The money surrounding Division 1 college football and basketball has reached epidemic proportions, with coaches from Power 5 conferences earning $3.26 million and $2.88 million on average, respectively. Recent litigation by current (Northwestern University v. NCAA, 2014) and former (O’Bannon v. NCAA, 2015) student-athletes from Power 5 Conference teams has sought to redefine the current power structure in college sports by demanding a reexamination of labor laws and redistribution of profits generated by the athletes.  The current intercollegiate framework is precipitated by amateurism; student-athletes commit to participating in sports-related activities in exchange for grant-in-aid and the opportunity to obtain a college degree.  Failure on the part of scholarship-granting institutions to fulfill their end of the bargain could jeopardize the longstanding tradition of college athletics by swaying public and judicial opinion, forcing NCAA member institutions to pay student-athletes for their services in a model more similar to professional sports.  Scholar Shaun Harper provides numerous recommendations for improving the education experience for Black male student-athletes.  Most notable of these, aimed squarely at administrators, faculty, and the NCAA, include transparent dissemination of disaggregated data, recycling of profits into student affairs programs, building inclusive coalitions that include student-athletes, and adopting practices of schools where Black male student-athletes are achieving academic success. Research-driven interventions are necessary to curtail the current revenue-producing trends in college sports. It is pretty clear that the NCAA  does not hold its student-athletes in high regard and is more interested in preserving its right to generate as much revenue as possible. This is evidenced by their most recent argument, fighting legislation calling for student-athletes to be appropriately compensated, using the thirteenth amendment loophole, which maintains slave labor as long as the producer of labor is a prisoner (Livers vs. NCAA, 2017).   A re-dedication to academics could ultimately save the lives of Black male athletes and college sports.  Changing the narrative through positive storytelling would tremendously impact the media, fans, and athletes. 

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