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Are Universities Exploiting Black Male Athletes in Order to Raise Revenues?

A new study suggests the answer is yes.
Members of the University of Missouri Tigers football team.

A recent report put out by the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center delivers some disturbing, if familiar, news about college athletic programs: They exist as mechanisms of exploitation, particularly of African-American men.

The meta-analysis, authored by Shaun Harper, an education professor at USC, concludes that "perhaps nowhere in higher education is the disenfranchisement of black male students more insidious than in college athletics." The takeaway, according to Harper, is the need for "more outrage and calls for accountability."

Of the 65 universities studied, black men comprised 2.4 percent of all undergraduates but 55 percent of football team members and 56 percent of basketball team members. Total student-athlete graduation rate was 69.3 percent over six years, and 76.3 percent for all students, but only 55.2 percent for black male student athletes. It's not as if these numbers are in the process of improving. At 40 percent of the universities black male athlete graduation rates have dropped by 6.5 percent in the last two years.

Given the formidable revenue generating force of college athletics—especially football and basketball—these figures strongly suggest racial exploitation, the kind whereby black men are used primarily for their athletic skills to generate income for universities that educate mostly white graduates for successful careers.

Harper is unusually direct about the underlying reason for the disparities his report documents. He places his findings in the deeper context of sports sociologist Harry Edward's 1984 claim that black student athletes:

[M]ust contend, of course, with the connotations and social reverberations of the traditional "dumb jock" caricature. But Black student-athletes are burdened also with the insidiously racist implications of the myth of "innate Black athletic superiority," and the more blatantly racist stereotype of the "dumb Negro" condemned by racial heritage to intellectual inferiority.

According to Harper, not much has changed when it comes to the prevalence and power of these stereotypes over the past 40 years. "This caricature and other racial stereotypes continue to plague Black male student-athletes at many predominantly white colleges and Universities," he writes, citing a slew of peer review studies to back his point.

If the disparity in graduation rates for black male student athletes is, as Harper indicates, rooted in long entrenched racial attitudes, then his call for a "sociocultural understanding of the status of Black male student athletes" is not only apt, but it may be the only way to get to the root of this problem in order to work our way out of it.

There are caveats to consider before concluding that racism is the cause of the comparative failure of black student athletes to graduate. Harper's numbers are culled from student-athletes who are on scholarship, and exclude those who may have walked on without financial assistance and possibly had a more successful educational experience.

While this limitation might overlook some black male students who graduated and played sports, the omission also indirectly strengthens Harper's argument in that it's a reminder that the figures that are included are based on students who had a high drop out rate despite being protected from the leading cause of dropping out: inability to pay tuition.

There can also be significant differences among the surveyed universities, gaps that might make the average numbers less meaningful. For example, Northwestern University graduates 88 percent of its black male student athletes; the corresponding figure for Louisiana State University is 34 percent.

The USC study has itself been the source of some criticism, mostly from conservative think tanks. Writing on the website of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a right-leaning think tank, Shannon Watkins takes issue with Harper's sociocultural framing of racial attitudes as a leading cause of the lower graduation rates among black male athletes.

Instead, she argues that the black male students are, as reflected in their lower SAT scores and high school grades compared to the school's standard admissions requirements, relatively unprepared to deal with the academic challenges they have to face. She concludes:

[T]he problem is not that universities are intimidating or preventing black athletes from succeeding in college—it is that university officials compromise academic integrity for the sake of gaining star players.

It may be true that black male athletes granted scholarships to help their universities win games, sell merchandise, and generate media attention—that is, raise revenue—are academically unprepared next to the average student at the surveyed universities. But so what?

Watkins' argument does nothing to address Harper's fundamental assertion that deleterious racial attitudes undermine the potential of black undergraduates to succeed on white campuses. In fact, it only asks us to see the problem in a broader scope, taking careful note that the racism Harper identifies as holding down black athletes in the classroom did not begin the day they started college. When I pushed Watkins on this point, she said, "there could be [other] factors, but I don’t deal with the areas outside of higher education."

Watkins further insists "the correlation between academic success and standardized test scores, such as the SAT, cannot be ignored." But this claim, in light of Harper's study, is disingenuous—if not dangerous—when not also considered against the overwhelming evidence that a phalanx of disadvantages due to racial disparity (and racism) have led to lower SAT scores and poorer academic achievement.

The notion that the university should be some sort of meritocratic utopia ignores the deeper reason that the resort to meritocratic thinking on such an issue is especially noxious: Race matters. And it matters more than ever.

It is to Harper's credit that he joins contemporary thinkers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson in not only affirming this obvious reality but demonstrating that the racial legacy of slavery and Jim Crow continues to appear everywhere, even on the football field and basketball court of our favorite teams, where we rarely think about who's really winning and losing.