Commentary: A Feast of Black Athletes and a Famine of Black Students

Are colleges shrewdly calculating Black students' worth?

Posted: 12/21/2012 04:41 PM EST
Commentary: A Feast of Black Athletes and a Famine of Black Students

The University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education put out a research paper this month called “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports." The study’s intention was to see just how bad the racial discrepancies are between some colleges’ sports programs — particularly football and basketball — and their general enrollment. The results, unfortunately, probably won’t surprise you.

Reports Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed:

Over all, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students at the 76 institutions, but 57.1 percent of football team members and 64.3 percent of male basketball players.

The study in no way seeks to suggest that there are too many black athletes … But at colleges where many of the black students on campus are athletes (a 2008 article in Inside Higher Ed, for instance, identified dozens of institutions in Division I where a third of the black undergraduate men on campus were athletes, and some where more than half were), "black men who are not student-athletes, because they are so few in number, end up suffering from the stereotypes that attach to athletes," Harper says. "It's not uncommon for a black man to get congratulated for a football victory while walking across campus on a Monday morning, despite the fact that he's 5-foot-6 and skinny."

Earlier this month, controversial University of Texas at Austin law professor Lino Graglia made headlines when he said, absurdly, that Blacks and Latinos simply can’t compete with white students when it comes to academic capabilities. Fifteen years ago, Graglia found himself in a similar situation when he claimed that Black and Latino cultures accept failure in a way white culture does not. At UT, the numbers do show that less than five percent [PDF] of the student body is Black. But there’s one subset of students in which the racial balance is much higher: the football team.

The condescending cases of mistaken identity are frustrating: they presuppose every Black person in college must be an athlete. But the root of that problem is that, too often, colleges find it acceptable to let in huge swaths of Black student-athletes and only a handful of Black students.

What does it say about a college when it will routinely and easily let in Black men who come to play football and earn money for the school while others remain a fractional presence on campuses around the country?

It says that many colleges shrewdly calculate Black students’ worth: If you can run, jump or tackle, they’ve got many places for you to fit in. If you can only go to class and learn, well, they’ve got white students to fill those roles.

These views do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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 (Photo:  Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

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