Over the last fifty years, the number of Black male student athletes (“BMSAs”) participating in big-time college sports (football and men’s basketball) has exploded. In fact, today BMSAs comprise over 60% of all college football players and basketball players, and for the last 25 years you would be hard pressed to find any top tier D-1 team where BMSAs comprised less than 80% of the starters. Unfortunately for so many of these BMSAs, the realization that there is life outside of sports that requires acquisition of non-athletic skills gained through education does not occur to them until their final whistle has been blown, their eligibility is exhausted, and the athlete has failed to take full advantage of the tremendous educational opportunities that their scholarship afforded them. Therefore, the joy of seeing the great increase in access for BMSAs is tempered with great disappointment arising from those BMSAs’ academic and life skill lack of success while attending some of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning. This sad scenario is the subject of a published study entitled “Black Male Students -–Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports (“Report”).
The Report by the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Race and Equality, highlights that despite some academic reforms and the well-produced “we all go pro” commercials touting NCAA athletes’ graduation rates being higher than non-athletes, there are startling and significant academic disparities regarding Black male athletes, such as: Only about half of BMSAs graduated within six years;96.1% of BCS institutions graduated BMSAs at rate slower than student-athletes overall;97.4% of BCS institutions graduated BMSAs at rate slower than undergraduate students overall; and, at almost 73% of BCS institutions, graduation rates for BMSAs were lower than rates for Black undergraduate men overall. Worse, the annual “Keeping Score When It Counts: Assessing the Academic Records of the 2015-2016 Bowl-bound College Football Teams,” a study released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, found a 19% disparity in graduation rates between white (85%) and BMSA (66%) players for the 2015-2016 bowls teams. The report also found these disappointing facts:
Fourteen schools graduated BMSAs at least 30 percentage points lower than their rates for white football student-athletes; 35 schools graduated BMSAs at least 20% lower than their rates for white football student-athletes; and only 5 schools graduated BMSAs at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Add in the fact that the NCAA- controlled College Sports Entertainment Complex, which features guaranteed multi-million-dollar-a-year contracts for coaches, allows conferences to bathe in multi-billion dollar TV deals, and universities to enter into profitable licensing and merchandising deals, is supported and made possible by the uncompensated labor of BMSAs. These facts seem to indicate that the NCAA and its member institutions are benefiting greatly at the expense BMSAs, and you can understand why many argue that BMSAs’ experiences are akin to the “exploitation endured by internally colonized people in the system of slavery” — especially when it is no secret that “young Blacks are encouraged toward attempts at ‘making it’ through athletic participation, rather than pursuit of education and other viable occupations,” as explained by famed sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards.
This belief in the “sports lottery,” causes many Black male athletes to single-mindedly pursue sports to the exclusion of academic interests because that appears to be the only way “to get mama out the hood.” So, it should come as no surprise that I too had aspirations of playing in the NFL at the expense of everything else. Fortunately, this all changed after a devastating knee injury that almost ended my football career, and resulted in hard, life lessons that gave me a new perspective about the need for education. BMSAs are not enslaved and do have the choice not to play college sports. Furthermore, BMSAs have a personal responsibility to maximize the educational and life skill opportunities available to them while attending the school of their choice.
However, many BMSAs enter their university at a severe disadvantage academically because they are products of badly under-resourced schools, under-prepared teachers, higher rates of family and community poverty and lower levels of education, and low expectations for academic success. Further, with so many Black males lacking the presence of a strong, positive Black male in their lives, many do not have the strong guidance and mentorship that young men need to successfully develop from boyhood to manhood. In fact, I have personally witnessed BMSAs without the needed mentorship completely stop going to class at the end of football season due to the belief that “the league” was just a few months away and they didn’t need a degree “to rush the quarterbacks.” Therefore, in addition to incorporating the recommendations suggested in the Report, the NCAA and its member institutions should adopt specific policies to accommodate and/or control for: 1) the poor K-12 academic experiences most BMSAs receive; and 2) the traumatic and negative socio-economic environments in which many BMSAs are raised.
Such policies should include, but not be limited to: ensuring that academic personnel working with BMSAs have extensive training to enable them work with and understand the culture of the different types of Black males (East Coast, Dirty South, Southern Cal, etc.) who come from unique (non-white) socio-cultural backgrounds and therefore have special needs that must be met in order to become successful college students; creating and supporting a Senior Black Male Administrator position on each college/university campus to ensure positive role models for Black male student-athletes in the same manner that each school has a Senior Woman Administrator; supporting the creation of the National Black Student-Athlete Association to create a critical mass of high-achieving BMSAs through peer-to-peer networking, and opportunities for leadership and professional development for Black student-athletes; supporting a Bridge Builder Mentoring Program on each college/university campus as a mandatory program that begins immediately after a BMSA signs his scholarship and continues through graduation.
In closing, by implementing the above policies, the NCAA can create a socio-cultural environment that will produce the trust, confidence, and motivation among BMSAs that is needed to inform, inspire, and empower BMSAs towards academic success. Doing so will yield high dividends for the NCAA, its member institutions, BMSAs, and, indeed, our Nation!
Damario Solomon-Simmons, J.D., M.Ed., a NCAA D-1 football letter winner atthe University of Oklahoma. He is Of Counsel at Oklahoma’s premier lawfirm, Riggs Abney, where his practice is focused on Civil Rights, PersonalInjury, and Sports. He can be contacted at @solospeaks or email@example.com.