Commentary: Penn Study Paints Dire Picture of Black Student-Athletes

Sports get Black men to college, but they find it tougher than whites to graduate.

Posted: 01/16/2014 11:00 AM EST
Commentary: Penn Study Paints Dire Picture of Black Student-Athletes

We are a society that is in statistical overload. Almost everyplace we turn we find numbers coming our way — so many of them that we are numb to numbers and their meanings. But as Black folk we can ill-afford to be, because some of these numbers can often tell us a lot about what is happening to our Black men.

No statistics offer as much insight into what is happening to Black student-athletes than a study out of the University of Pennsylvania.

But Penn, through its respected Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, isn’t the only institution that has spotlighted the academic shortcomings of student-athletes. CNN announced last week the results of its recent investigation into college athletics and made this bold statement: “Some college athletes play like adults, read like fifth-graders.”

What we see from these reports is that, despite the built-in advantages student-athletes are said to have in the classroom, they perform at a lower rate than the typical student, and we know that instead of athletic departments doing more to improve these statistics, they are trying to squeeze more and more from athletes who attend the collegiate sports factories like North Carolina, UCLA, Oklahoma, Oregon, Georgia, Florida State and Michigan State.

The latest is the 2015 championship series in Division I football, which will force student-athletes, a disproportionate number of whom are Black males, to play an additional game. In fact, some people have suggested that the championship series should go from four teams to 16 teams, which means three additional games for the two teams that reach the finals.

What these games mean for student-athletes is less time in the classroom and more time on the playing field. For Black males, that’s hardly a good thing.

Look, it’s not as if Black males go off to colleges with no aspirations. They have heard that education is the great equalizer: Graduate from high school; go off to college; and live the American dream happily ever after.

But the reality is the only way too many of them get to college is as an athlete, a dream in itself that often turns life into a nightmare. He becomes another statistic, which, according to the Penn study, looks like this:

— Between 2007 and 2010, Black men were 2.8 percent of the full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students, but 57.1 percent of the football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams.

— Across four cohorts, 50.2 percent of Black male student-athletes graduate within six years, compared to 66.9 percent of student-athletes overall, 72.8 percent of undergraduate students overall, and 55.5 percent of Black undergraduate men overall.

Society is obsessed with certainty, a fact not lost on anybody who follows sports. But uncertainty is preferable to seeing another ounce of blood and sweat pour from Black men who should be spending less time on the practice field and more time in the classroom.

Right now, the term “student-athlete” is pure fiction. It’s a lie that sounds good on the face of it, but an exploration of those damnable numbers, if the Penn report is to be taken as gospel, shows a disconnect between classroom achievement and athletic achievement.

The latter should have more value than the former.

Yet we know that’s not the case. We know that Black men, the stars who make college football teams great, are struggling to find the classroom success they have on the field.

For them, the answer isn’t more football games; the answer is fewer games, less time on the practice field and more time in the classroom. No one is proposing that option, because it doesn’t add up to the right numbers — the numbers with dollar signs in front of them.

So as long as dollars reign in big-time college sports, Black student-athletes will be a statistical nightmare that we are afraid to confront and find a way to erase it from our minds.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh

(Photo: David J Phillip/AP Photo)

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