Sports Still No Ticket Out Of The Ghetto

The sports world buzzed with the recent news that Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson became the first African-American to purchase a majority ownership in a professional basketball team (the Hornets). But a few days later, with little fanfare, the NCAA issued a report on the academic performance of black athletes. While Johnson's acquisition was widely hailed as proof that blacks had finally cracked the clubby, and many say bigoted, world of white billionaire pro sports owners, for most black college basketball players the hope of joining his team remains a cruel pipe dream.

Only a microscopic fraction of the thousands of black male college basketball and football players will ever don a professional uniform. Even more embarrassing, the majority of them won't graduate. The NCAA report found that though 60 percent of athletes at Division 1 schools graduate in six years, only slightly more than 40 percent of black male athletes graduate. For basketball players, the figure is a dismal 35 percent. And even more embarrassing, many of these athletes will skip through three or four years at colleges and still emerge as educational cripples.

The low graduation rate for black male athletes comes at a time when the enrollment for black males at many colleges has sharply declined due to the gut of affirmative action, special education, diversity outreach programs, and budget cutbacks. At the University of Southern California, for instance, many black males on campus repeatedly complain that they are constantly asked whether they are athletes. The question is not necessarily racist since nearly a seventh of black male students on the campus are football or basketball players on an athlete scholarship. This compares to two percent or less of the white, Asian, and Latino males on campus.

The aspiring Michael Jordans in basketball and Emmit Smiths in football spend countless hours mastering their dribbling or ball carrying skills with little thought to their future after their sports days are finished. They live for the day when they will sign megabuck pro contracts. Few ever will.

In 1994, the Washington Post did a ten-year follow-up on thirty-six basketball players who played for Georgetown and the Universities of Maryland and Virginia in the 1980's. Most told sad tales of failed careers, part-time jobs, unsuccessful tryouts with NBA teams, and barnstorming tours with semi-pro or European teams. Twenty-eight eventually got their degrees and settled into careers as salesmen, teachers or counselors. Even though the story is repeated by thousands of other ex-athletes, illusions diehard today. A group of black high school athletes were told that the odds against them making a pro team were nearly impossible. Fifty-one percent still believed that they could beat them.

The late Tennis great Arthur Ashe was deeply troubled by the slavish adulation of athletes by many young blacks. During visits to black high schools, he was thunderstruck by "the obsession" with sports that borders on pathology. The sports obsession that Ashe spoke of tells much about the otherworldly intoxication of sports. For many it blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Coaches know this better than anyone. They wheel and deal to ram as many blacks as they can into their school's uniforms. The name of the game is not study, baby, study; but win, baby, win.

Major colleges have a huge vested interest in keeping their well-oiled athletic assembly lines moving smoothly. It means hard dollars. Major NCAA universities bag millions in revenue from their athletic programs. In the two major revenue-generating sports, basketball and football, blacks make up respectively fifty and seventy percent of the college players.

The message in this shameful sports saga is that black parents whose sons are involved in athletic programs and harbor delusions of pro sport fame and fortune must hold coaches, teachers and school administrators accountable for their children's courses, grades and campus activities. They must make it clear that if their sons or daughters don't perform in the classroom, they don't get to perform on the field or the court.

Black professionals and educators must create academic self-help programs to recycle young blacks from sports junkies to serious students. They can provide educational scholarships for academically sound athletes and establish career counseling, job and skills training programs.

The ultimate responsibility, though, is on the colleges that reap fortunes off of black athletes. They must do much more to insure that their "student athletes" graduate, or at least better prepare themselves for a business or professional career. This means providing them counseling, tutoring and financial assistance to encourage them to complete their studies when their eligibility ends.

Sports can be a rewarding, even profitable experience for many black athletes. But if NCAA Division 1 schools don't stop solely exploiting black athletes as athletes and start educating as students, sports will never be their ticket out of the ghetto.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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