African American Athletes and Academic Performance

This week, Gregory Kaliss, author of Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality(now available in paperback), pens an essay for Black History Month on African American athletes and education.

A recent spate of stories in the national news media has examined the serious problem with the academic performance of athletes at Division 1 colleges and universities. A study by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania showed the significant gap between the academic performance of black student athletes in relation to their white peers, with the football players of the national champion Florida State Seminoles graduating at only a 37% rate. Equally troubling was a CNN story noting the academic deficiencies of men’s basketball and football players at the University of North Carolina and other public schools nationwide.
It seems quite clear that many student athletes, especially racial minorities, come to college unprepared to succeed and are offered little remedial help to bolster their chances for earning success.

These are serious issues and are especially meaningful in light of the hopes that black leaders had for college athletes to transform the racial landscape in the U.S. When African American leaders pushed for racial integration in the realm of college athletics, they did so in the hopes that sports participation would lead to broader changes in American society. Whites would see blacks and whites playing together as teammates. They would be forced to acknowledge the accomplishments of African Americans on the fields and in the classrooms of privileged institutions of higher learning. They would have to acknowledge black men as something other than the caricatures passed down through Hollywood films, biased media coverage, and various other cultural forms.
Like professional sports, integrated college sports would show that an equal opportunity society was possible once African Americans were given the chance to succeed. But college athletics had the added bonus of educating future black leaders to take up the cause of racial equality in later years.

Men's College AthleticsAs my own research for Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality, and the work of other scholars attests, those hopes dimmed over the years, especially as the 1960s progressed. White fans attempted to relegate black achievements to the realm of the physical, refusing to credit black male intelligence and leadership. Certain positions on teams, such as the quarterback, remained off-limits to black players for decades. And, most significantly, black athletes found that white coaches and university administrators had little concern for their academic wellbeing. Plucked from under-funded schools and completely unprepared for the rigors of college life, these student athletes found themselves taking just enough courses to remain eligible for their sport, only to discover that they had not worked toward a degree. When their time in sport was done, they had almost nothing to show for their time in college.

Although some of these issues have clearly improved over the years, the stories now circulating in the media suggest that many problems still remain in the academic realm. And they indicate that many administrators, coaches, players, and fans need to be reminded of the long struggle for African-American athletes to get an opportunity in Division 1 athletics, and the high hopes black leaders once had for college sports. In remembering those struggles and those aspirations, we may yet generate enough dialogue to create meaningful change in how our colleges and universities educate their student athletes.

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