Black student-athletes fight to juggle academic and athletic responsibilities amid persisting racial stereotypes.
While the demands on all student-athletes is observable, the obstacles faced by a large portion of the student-athlete population is often less obvious. In addition to dealing with the typical academic and athletic requirements, black student-athletes today still describe a need to overcome latent racial stereotypes.
Sixty percent of black student-athletes entering Temple in the 1997-98 academic year graduated within six years, according to last fall’s NCAA Graduation Rates Report. Though that figure was only four points below the overall student-athlete average of 64 percent, it was noticeably lower than the 70 percent graduation rate recorded by white student-athletes.
Kenyatta Rush, academic adviser to student-athletes, said the lower rate is partly a product of the “double stigma” of being an athlete and black in our society.
“When an athlete walks into a classroom, the professor is predisposed to think of athletes as dumb jocks. That’s going to affect the white student-athlete as well as the black student-athlete,” Rush said. “But the black student-athlete has an additional component because of the portrayals of the African American, particularly male, in our society. It’s one of negativity, violence, maybe of prison or hip-hop culture and who knows what that says to an instructor, what’s going through his mind.”
The “athlete” part of the term “student-athlete” is more heavily weighted for blacks, said James Earl Davis, associate professor in the department of educational leadership and policy studies, with an interest in the experience of the black male on college campuses.
“You would be surprised at some small liberal arts colleges around the country, the really high percentage of black students on campus who are athletes,” Davis said. “It’s just assumed that if you are a black student, you’re an athlete.”
Some black student-athletes said they would almost find that attitude comical, if it were not for the ignorance it implies.
“[Students] just assume,” said senior Sadeke Konte, a former football player. “They come up to you and they’re like, ‘What position do you play?’ Without even asking if I play football or not and without any Temple football clothing on. I don’t know if they know me from watching games or [athletics department Web site] Owlsports or whatever, but if a student or anyone else can figure that out, why not a teacher?”
Davis expressed dismay at the culture that has fostered these attitudes. Too many young black males pursue athletics as a profession, he said, because of the value placed on black athletes at the college and pro ranks by the media.
Visibility is a key component of this reality, he said. While sports is far more difficult a profession to break into, black children believe it is more open to them than medicine, law or business because of what they see on television and elsewhere.
“If a student worked really hard, he’d have a better chance of making it into medical school than the NBA,” Davis said. “But obviously, that’s not part of his psyche. There hasn’t been the support and exposure and encouragement that they could get into medical school.”
Men’s basketball coach John Chaney, however, argued that it is not that professional avenues seem closed to black youths; it’s that they often really are.
“We’ve heard some of our great, illustrious leaders sometimes condemn a young man for being an athlete,” Chaney said. “Try to remember, that for blacks coming out of high school, there just aren’t that many scholarships in other areas that they can enter college through. So it is stereotypical to find them in basketball, but it is almost an inevitable end.”
Within sports, black athletes are restricted by a concept known as stacking. Stacking is the intentional or unintentional practice by which blacks are funneled into supposedly non-intellectual positions in which they have a low risk of negatively affecting the outcome of a game. This phenomenon has been used to explain the traditionally small percentage of black quarterbacks in football, and major league pitchers and catchers in baseball.
All the student-athletes, coaches and experts interviewed said conscious racism is for the most part absent from college athletics today. But Kevin Delaney, a sociology professor, said the remnants of the openly-racist system of the past persist. Blacks are no longer specifically excluded from roles, he said, but coaches and administrators unconsciously adhere to what they learned from a history in which blacks were overtly segregated.
“It’s partly the stereotypes coaches have, preconceptions that maybe black players are faster,” Delaney said. “It also comes from seeing players at certain positions historically, like traditionally not seeing a lot of black quarterbacks, as a kind of modeling effect.”
“When you put these powerful influences together, it really becomes a cycle,” he added. “The challenge then is to get people willing to break the cycle.”
Stacking is not unique to America. In British soccer, Delaney said, studies show white Europeans holding midfield positions, where decisions must be made on the fly, and black West Indians or Africans playing on the wing. In Australian rugby, whites occupy the central positions while Aboriginals are most often wideouts.
All this amounts, in the most extreme cases, to a form of economic exploitation. Black student-athletes are socially isolated on predominantly white campuses, placed in highly-visible positions with marginal influence, and bring in enormous amounts of money for the institution and the NCAA.
“Can you figure out how many jobs would be lost if there were no basketball, if there were no prominent players?” Chaney said. “Look at the billions of dollars that are going into the NCAA’s coffers because of basketball. And 90 percent [sic] of them are black.”
Most discussion regarding black student-athletes was limited to males because black female student-athletes do not to have the same academic difficulties. Black female students at Temple graduated at a 52 percent rate according to the 2004 study, and as student-athletes they graduated at 76 percent clip as a four-year average. But only 36 percent of black male students graduated in that span.
The economic and academic aspects are less bothersome in women’s sports, said women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley. Rather, it is a matter of exposure and respect.
“Whether it’s black or white, women in this country just aren’t seen on the same level [as men], and that’s just the way of the world,” Staley said. “I don’t think being black has any more to do with it than being a woman. We’re just seen as different than our male counterparts.”
Even with financial support for their programs, black male student-athletes continue to struggle to graduate. Chaney, whose roster is 100 percent black, said he is uncertain his players would be afforded professional opportunities off the court if they were to pursue them.
“In many cases, you will not find blacks who have been given that chance,” Chaney said. “I’m an example of being given an opportunity. I was at Cheney State in Division II when [former Temple President] Peter Liacouras reached out to me to give me a chance as a coach. … He could have gone straight across the country to look for coaches of Division I ilk, and not look down to Division II, at a black man, and give him an opportunity. That is not done every day.”
There are currently 61 black coaches in college basketball and three in college football. The NCAA reported last May that just over 20 percent of student-athletes were black, including about 42 percent of men’s college basketball student-athletes and just over 31 percent of football student-athletes.
But an NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interest Committee found in 2003 that 51 percent of Division I college athletes were black, compared to 2 percent of coaches. MSNBC corroborated the committee’s statistics in December.
Chaney and others contend that in the near future those opportunities may become even rarer. Chaney, Davis, and numerous black coaches and scholars have long disputed the benefit of Proposition 48, which in 1983 set minimum standards in grades and standardized tests for incoming student-athletes.
Chaney has objected to the proposition since its inception. The system has since been amended, and Chaney said the last three players to enter the Temple program through Prop. 48 – Quincy Wadley, Alex Wesby and David Hawkins – all graduated in four years.
But Prop. 48’s success stories are exactly why critics say the program is flawed. If students, most of them black, have performed so well despite poor high school grades and scores, Chaney said, does not that suggest unreliability in the academic data the system is based on?
“The ones who didn’t even attempt to go to college because of Prop. 48, we have no way of measuring. This was a car that ran over people,” said Chaney. “It just didn’t work, so I feel badly about the kids that never had a chance.”
The consensus among those interviewed was that individual student-athletes should be made aware of the difficulties they might face without harping on it.
“It is one thing to close your eyes and not see racism in athletics or basketball,” Chaney said. “It is another thing to know and be intelligent to know it exists [but not acknowledge it].”
“I make my players aware of life,” Staley added. “Whether that’s being a black female athlete, whether that’s being a professional, whether it’s being a student, you have to make them aware of all they’re going to face in the future.”
The black community has developed a saying to address the obstacles they face.
“We’ve got to be twice as smart and work twice as hard,” Rush said. “I think that our [black] culture has to get back to that thinking because the dominant culture is not going to change. Not that there’s no hope, but basically we have to attack it like that.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.