By: Anthony James
“And since all the ballers leaving college early, I turn on the T.V. and don’t see no brothers with degrees lately…” sung rap artist J.Cole during a performance on David Letterman. As the lyrics spoke directly to me and a few other young former black student-athletes in attendance that night, I began to wonder just how true that assertion was.
The academic underperformance and underrepresentation of black men in NCAA Division 1 colleges and universities aren’t matters of concern to campus leaders and policy makers. Often lost in the lulling disguise of diversity, except when campus statistics explicitly reminds us of it, is the fact that there is one place where black men are not underrepresented on many campuses. On sports teams, particularly football and men’s basketball, black males make up just 2.8% of the student bodies at these schools, yet represented an astounding 57.1% of football players and 64.3% of basketball players. The disparity of non-athletic black students versus athletic black students on Division 1 college campuses signals an exploitation of the athletic ability of these black student athletes for profit, and graduation rates display a disdain for the nurturing of their academic potential.
The focus on athletic performance rather than the student-athlete’s overall academic experience causes many athletic programs to recruit players that, while athletically talented, are not equipped to succeed academically. The statistics showing that black athletes graduate at lower rates than other black students attending the same institutions illuminate the fact that black student athletes are not recruited using the same level of academic scrutiny as every other student. Collegiate institutions recruit these players and then profit from their athletic abilities as the players mainly focus on becoming professional athletes. Although many student-athletes aspire to play professional sports after college, the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft fewer than 2% of student-athletes of all races each year.
According to a recent study of the 76 largest programs in collegiate athletics in the 6 conferences whose member institutions customarily win football, basketball championships, and play in multimillion-dollar bowl games, just 50.2% of all black athletes in revenue producing sports graduate within six years. Racial inequities in Division 1 universities across America are evidenced by the schools’ acceptance rates, let alone their graduation rates. What is shocking, however, is that these trends are so widespread, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and athletics conference commissioners have done little to nothing in response to them. Even more egregious is the response–or lack thereof–from the American public, including former black student-athletes, college sports enthusiasts, and journalists, who have more than accepted this to be the norm.
The NCAA made approximately $912.8 million last year, with 83% of that coming from Division 1 college basketball tournaments. In light of these tremendous earnings, however, NCAA has an amateurism policy that does not allow students to be compensated for their efforts on or off the court while in college. Instead they go by the “pay-for-play” motto, which loosely stands for the idea that a full ride scholarship or partial scholarship for the athlete’s education is payment enough.
Even in light of major concerns with that application, I’m inclined to agree with the overall fairness of that contractual transaction in theory. A college degree is something so many bright young Americans struggle to afford, let alone attain. But where is the equal exchange for the black-student athletes that do not graduate from these Division 1 institutions who make millions a year off of their jersey sales, television revenue, ticket prices, likeness promotions and contributions to the win column?
This national issue becomes a national racial issue for two reasons. First, because black-male student athletes make up more than half of the sports teams at these schools, it is fair to assume that they are the majority affected by its decision-making. Second, while the entire student-athlete body is potentially comprised of victims of capitalism at its finest, white-male student athletes are twice as likely to graduate within four years. Therefore, white-student athletes are arguably receiving just compensation, in the form of a degree for their work on the field and court. The African-American community, or American community for that matter, is not looking for and does not expect the NCAA and Department of Education leaders to create a simple solution to this problem. There isn’t one. The assumption of responsibility by the NCAA and Division 1 institutions for these more than marginal racial gaps in the opportunity of higher education for black-male student athletes is all that is being called for.
 Comeaux, E., & Harrison C. K., Faculty and Male Student Athletes: Racial Differences in the Environmental Predictors of Academic Achievement, Race, Ethnicity and Education, 10(2), 199-214 (2007).