Education Commentary

Academic Expectations and Black Athletes

By Harry Edwards — July 26, 2016 9 min read

We may be at the beginning of a new era in the often turbulent relationship between athletics and academics in America. The National Collegiate Athletic Association earlier this year adopted bylaw 5(1)j, better known as rule 48, mandating minimum academic requirements for freshman participation in Division I varsity sports. Unprecedented efforts toward upgrading academic prerequisites for participation in high-school extracurricular activities have been undertaken across the country--most prominently, “no-pass, no-play” rules in Texas and elsewhere. And a jury recently awarded damages to Jan Kemp, a remedial-curriculum instructor fired by the University of Georgia for protesting the waiver of academic standards for some athletes.

The continuing debate over the proper role of athletics at both the high-school and college levels has especially critical implications for black students. Due to a complex and intricate combination of social and cultural influences--including a tradition of societywide racial discrimination that has hindered the development of high-prestige black occupational models outside sports--black youths with exceptional athletic potential have been channeled in disproportionate numbers toward career aspirations in sports. The fact that black athletes receive approximately 55 percent of the basketball scholarships and 40 percent of the football scholarships awarded by Division I universities attests to the degree of black success in this regard-success achieved and sustained at an extremely high price.

At least since the 1960’s and the onset of racially integrated, big-money, televised men’s collegiate sports, N.C.A.A. Division I schools have been engaged in an ever-intensifying and mutually destructive “athletic arms race-"-an all-out struggle to recruit the ''blue-chipper,’' the caliber of athlete that AI McGuire, the sports commentator and former coach, calls the “big gun” or the “aircraft carrier.”

Sadly, far too many of the black athletes recruited are now revealed to have teen not only the most strategic weapons in the struggle for collegiate athletic supremacy, but also the principal casualties. Studies, buttressed recently by N.C.A.A.-Sponsored research, have long suggested that a significant majority--65 to 75 percent of black athletes (as opposed to 25 to 35 percent of white athletes)--never graduate from the colleges they represent in sports. Of those black athletes obtaining degrees, 75 percent (three times the percentage of white athletes) majored in physical education, sports administration, or communications--areas promising limited occupational marketability and mobility, especially for blacks. Moreover, the proportion of draft-eligible collegiate football and basketball players making professional sports rosters each year has stabilized at just under 2 percent. This means that over 98 percent of all college basketball and football players never make a payday as professionals.

It was largely the fact of black athletes’ overrepresentation on Division I football and basketball rosters, coupled with their gross underrepresentation on graduation rolls, that provoked charges of “racist exploitation” and precipitated the passage of the N.C.A.A.'S bylaw 5(1)j scheduled for the first phase of implementation in August of this year.

But substantive reform will be neither quick nor easily achieved. There is far less than consensus among educators, athletic officials, and members of the general public about the fairness and potential effectiveness of the various reform measures. The criticism by black educators and parents has been especially strong.

The traditionally black Division I colleges are incensed over the N.C.A.A.'s new rule. They point out, for example, that traditionally white Division I colleges will be able to use their superior financial resources to “warehouse” academically ineligible blue-chip freshman athletes if they so choose. The traditionally black colleges--already at a substantial disadvantage in the athletic arms race--have far fewer resources applicable toward such stockpiling.

Black parents have joined many black educators and coaches in denouncing proposed minimum academic standards for high-school athletes. These parents tend to view the standards as arbitrary obstacles to their children’s achievement of sports stardom. They also argue that sports activities, for some students, constitute the chief motivation for attending school. And others claim that denying black students participation in activities on academic grounds amounts to “punishing the victims"--that their sub-par academic achievement is due to sub-par schools and environments.

Aside from concerns such as those expressed by black parents, educators, and athletic personnel, there are other problems associated with the reform rules. For example, 5(1)j is based solely upon athletes’ high-school academic preparation and ignores the issue of Division I institutions’ responsibilities for providing effective academic support programs for the athletes they recruit. Also, many questions remain about the precise meanings of some of the rule’s key concepts, such as what substantively constitutes a “core course.” Even more perplexing problems have emerged with some of the high-school rules. In Texas, it is possible for one student to have below-average but passing grades in “soft” courses and participate in extracurricular activities, while another student might complete chemistry, algebra, physics, English, and history with straight A’s, but receive a failing grade in physical education and thereby become ineligible.

No one who understands the situation could reasonably be unsympathetic to these and other concerns so vehemently expressed. But sympathy for such concerns should not automatically translate into support for conclusions of dubious merit.

Due to the disproportionate victimization of black students under past circumstances of academic laxity, black society in particular must support the new reform efforts notwithstanding the potential consequences for traditionally black colleges and some black athletes. Educational institutions, above all else, must be about establishing and maintaining’ some semblance of educational integrity. If, in upholding minimum academic prerequisites for athletic participation, educators are able to salvage students who over the long run would be lost to academic underdevelopment and failure, then some sacrifice of athletic eligibility in the short run is both ethically and educationally justified.

Only 5 percent of high-school athletes ever participate in their sports at the collegiate level. If, in pursuit of athletic eligibility, the vast majority of high-school black athletes--who, statistically speaking, have no collegiate or professional athletic futures--are compelled to pay greater attention to the development of reading, writing, and calculating skills, they could well be the principal beneficiaries of bylaw 5(1)j, “no-pass, no-play,” and similar rules. Furthermore, the standards stipulated in the new academic rules are extraordinarily moderate. Under Texas’s “no-pass, no-play” rule, a student athlete could compete over the four years of high-school eligibility and never take an academically challenging course or receive a grade higher than D-.

For all of the sound, fury, and controversy surrounding its passage, N.C.A.A. bylaw 5(1)j adheres to a similar pattern of moderation. Under the provisions originally adopted in 1983, freshman collegiate athletes, beginning in August 1986, would have been required to have achieved at least a 2.0 or C average in 11 core courses and a score of at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the equivalent 15 points on the American College Testing Program exam. Following an uproar over these woefully moderate standards--by some segments of black society in particular—5(I)j was further diluted by the N.C.A.A.'S decision in January of this year to phase in the standards over the next two years (with the original provisions finally taking effect in August 1988).

These new academic prerequisites--collegiate and high school--dearly do not constitute Phi Beta Kappa-level criteria. Rather, it could be argued that the requirements constitute mere literacy relative to the ever-expanding skills demanded of normal adults to function in our society. The outcry against the establishment of these standards on the grounds--explicitly stated or implied-that they are beyond the capacities of any significant proportion of any category of student athletes must be dismissed as wholly without merit.

Today, the seriousness of the black educational crises in sports and beyond demands that we be quite candid about the potential impact of the new standards upon black student athletes and about the lower average academic scores for black students in general. There is no denying that 32 years after Brown v. Board of Education ours is still a racially divided nation with schools that are, for the most part, racially separate and inherently unequal. The majority of black students live in predominantly black or all-black communities and, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, attend predominantly black or all-black schools, where they are taught overwhelmingly by black teachers under the guidance of black administrators. Therefore, if black students are not learning what they must, the black community, black teachers and administrators, black parents, and black students themselves must bear a significant amount of the responsibility.

While de facto segregation most likely explains overall black-white inequality in educational performance, it far from suffices as an explanation of why inordinate numbers of black students would fail to realize even the very modest levels of educational achievement required under the new rules for high school and collegiate athletic eligibility. This situation is caused less by segregation than by seriously flawed, black-dominated and maintained educational environments and misguided or confused perspectives on the part of far too many blacks about the relative priority of eligibility versus education and of playbooks versus textbooks.

For the better part of two decades, black society either has tolerated or been oblivious to extraordinarily disproportionate black casualties in the struggle for sports supremacy. In the short term, it is likely that blacks will continue to experience disproportionately high casualties in the struggle for reform. I am convinced that over the long haul, however, black athletes can rise to meet the challenges of the new academic prerequisites--but only if black educators, black parents, and black society in general communicate to them clearly and unequivocably that we expect them to achieve academically as well as athletically. Notwithstanding what Division I colleges or the larger society might do or fail to do about black athletes’ academic outcomes, if that message from black society, black parents, and black educators is not actively and effectively communicated and backed up by meaningful educational reform within the black community, we black people will have largely ourselves to blame.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 1986 edition of Education Week

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