Commentary

Big-time colleges care more about money and winning than black athletes getting degrees

They are prized for their skills but stereotyped on campuses and in society

The tragic stereotype that the only thing a black man can be is an athlete — and a dumb one at that — tortures the nation’s psyche, perpetuated by the very institution charged with enlightenment, the American university.

In my 24th annual Graduation Gap Bowl, the story expands well beyond the graduation rates of African American athletes and the incessant racial disparities within teams where the rates for black players usually lag well behind those of white players.

What’s now equally unavoidable is this: no matter what the graduation rates, the only smart black men allowed on campus are athletes.

To be sure, the disparities remain in some cases ridiculous. Top-ranked Louisiana State went into the college football national championship game versus Clemson with a NCAA Graduation Success Rate of 59% for its African American football players, compared with 92% for its white football players. Semifinalist Ohio State had a 56% graduation rate for African American players and 83% for white players.

Clemson, which lost the title game to LSU, had the highest African American graduation rate among the four teams of 74%, but that still paled to the 100% for white players. Semifinalist Oklahoma had similar disparities, graduating only 68% of African American players while graduating 92% of white players.

The average racial disparity of 27.5 percentage points from the top teams is a reminder that no matter how much the overall graduation rates have improved over the years, the top-tier teams still turn a blind eye to their acrid academic atmosphere. It should be unacceptable that LSU and Ohio State graduate barely more than half of their black players while graduating most of their white football players.

Don’t be surprised by the schools involved

This expectation of perfection and near perfection for white athletes on and off the field is exemplified by this: While 49 bowl teams had a graduation rate ranging from 88 to 100 percent for white players, only eight programs had the same range for black players (Boise St., Temple, Louisville, Navy, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Tulane).

Among the 78 bowl teams, the worst combinations of low black graduation rates and high disparities were symbolized by Louisiana Tech (49% for black players and 95% for white players), Oklahoma State (48%/81%) and Kent State (43%/88%). Other teams that haven’t been mentioned that have at least a 20-point percentage gap in graduation rates were Buffalo, San Diego State, Marshall, Miami (FL), North Carolina, Wake Forest, Texas A&M, Memphis, Western Kentucky, Mississippi State, California, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona State, Florida State, Wyoming, Alabama, Boston College, Tennessee, Ohio, Nevada and Louisiana-Lafayette.

If universities can be so effective at finding black men to play ball and make millions of dollars, why can they not find black men who do not play sports and provide the support necessary to matriculate?

Those disparities alone maintain the halo of white intellectual superiority among athletes, a centrifugal force in the conveyor belt of white coaches running majority-black teams, an issue currently bedeviling the NFL.

Now add in the toxic ingredient of black athletes being grossly overrepresented on campus, and that deprives even the black men who do not play sports credit for their brains.

At LSU, for instance, only one out of every 125 white male students are scholarship athletes. But one out of every 11 black male students are scholarship athletes. That makes a black male student 11 times more likely than a white male student to be a scholarship athlete.

That is only the tip of the insidiousness. At Tulane, Utah State, Wyoming and Utah, every other African American male student is a scholarship athlete, according to the most recent NCAA Graduation Success Rates Report. At San Diego State, Southern Methodist, Boise State, Appalachian State and Wake Forest, one of every three black men is on sports scholarship. The ratio is 1 in 4 at Washington, Marshall, Hawaii, Miami (Florida), Iowa, Southern California, Notre Dame, California and Oregon and 1 in 5 at Central Michigan, Washington State, Virginia, Baylor and Miami (Ohio).

Wake Forest Demon Deacons running back Kenneth Walker III (left) carries the ball during the second quarter against the North Carolina Tar Heels at BB&T Field on Sept. 13, 2019.

Jeremy Brevard\USA TODAY Sports

Conversely, at 65 of the 78 bowl teams, the ratio of white scholarship athletes among white male students ranges from 1 in 30 to 1 in 156.

The final result is that a black man on campus is at least five times more likely than a white man on campus to be a scholarship athlete at 59 of the 78 schools in the bowls. The chances explode to between 10 times to 33 times as high at LSU, Utah State, San Diego State, Southern Methodist, Washington, Boise State, Appalachian State, Central Florida, Marshall, Miami (Florida), Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Iowa, Washington State, Iowa State, Illinois, Virginia Tech, Wyoming, Texas, Utah, Auburn, Oregon, Wisconsin, Baylor, Cincinnati and Tulane.

As you can glean from that list, this is an issue that knows no region, size of campus or whether the school is public or private. This should raise several questions. If universities can be so effective at finding black men to play ball and make millions of dollars for their coffers, and improve their graduation rates over the years, why can they not find black men who do not play sports and provide the support necessary to matriculate?

Stereotypes are magnified on campus

Studies past and current show that black men who do not play sports remain trapped in an endless cycle of being asked if they play ball. It matters not whether they are majoring in engineering, social work, oceanography or English Lit, nor whether they are nerds from the ‘burbs. A 2015 study in the Harvard Educational Review found that 30 of 32 African American student achievers and campus leaders with at least a 3.0 GPA at giant Big Ten schools in the Midwest were mistaken for athletes. That study quoted a student saying:

“I am 5 foot, 5 inches and I only weigh 135 pounds. You would be surprised at how many Whites walk up to me and congratulate me on a ‘good game’ the Monday after we win a football game. Besides being a black dude, nothing else about me even remotely suggests I am a football player or any other kind of athlete.”

“This perception of athleticism is rooted in notions of black men as being hypermasculine. The image of the strong and aggressive athlete has been associated with low-income and working-class black men.” — 2014 Cal Poly Pomona study

The default assumption that they are on campus for their body and not their mind is a pernicious microaggression. It is part of the dispiriting blunting and killing of career aspirations as studies continue to clearly demonstrate that African Americans with equal resumes are rejected far more often for advancement in the corporate and research world, let alone coaching big-time college and pro sports.

As a 2014 study from Cal Poly Pomona said, “This perception of athleticism is rooted in notions of black men as being hypermasculine. The image of the strong and aggressive athlete has been associated with low-income and working-class black men.” The study said the stereotype for non-sports black men goes a long way to “negating their academic merit.”

Thus, American universities are engaging in a horribly warped version of W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of The Talented Tenth. The great scholar envisioned 117 years ago that African Americans would be led into equality by the educated class, “schooled in the colleges and universities of the land … A university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation, through the training of quick minds and pure hearts.”

In 2020, it is abundantly clear that the American university can be a dehumanizing invention, opening its arms to black men only if they have quick hands, quick feet and the heart to have their heads bashed in at the line of scrimmage.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated. He co-authored Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.

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