Win or Lose, College Sports Are Still Failing Black Athletes

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Why you should care

Not only are football and basketball programs not graduating Black players, but there’s no plan to fix this problem.

A law signed last month in California allowing college athletes to earn endorsement deals has opened up a fresh debate over how to compensate the players who power an $8 billion industry. The centerpiece of their current recompense is a college scholarship — an increasingly pricey ticket to higher learning and higher lifetime wages. But it’s not worth much without a diploma.

Less than 2 percent of athletes in the NCAA go on to play professional sports, and those chances are more than six times higher for college baseball than for football or basketball. And for those who don’t go on to a pro career, other options can be limited:

Across the five major Division 1 conferences, 45 percent of Black male athletes fail to graduate within six years.

That’s a higher rate of unfinished education than athletes in general (31 percent fail to graduate), Black students in general (40 percent) and undergraduates in general (14 percent). Those numbers are drawn from research published in 2018 by Shaun Harper of USC’s Race and Equity Center.

Just three universities in the five athletic conferences studied — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — graduated Black athletes at rates comparable to or exceeding those in the general student population. And at 40 percent of the 65 universities in the study, graduation rates for Black male athletes actually declined between 2016 and 2018.

“People watching their favorite NCAA basketball or football teams — the revenue-earning squads — have to realize what they’re witnessing is a 21st-century plantation,” says John Amaechi, a psychologist and veteran of both NCAA and NBA basketball. “The NCAA says, ‘We’re trying to fix these graduation rates,’ but that is not fact.”

And failing to graduate can have major consequences. The unemployment rate for Black people with some college experience, but no degree, is 5.6 percent — nearly twice as high as it is for all who’ve matriculated without graduating (2.9 percent).

This problem is concentrated in the SEC. The three schools with the lowest Black student athlete graduation rate in Harper’s 2018 survey were all part of that conference, and two of them — Louisiana State University and the University of Georgia — also saw the biggest drops in Black student athlete graduation rates between 2016 and 2018, falling more than 10 percentage points.

Kevin O’Neill, who coached at Marquette, Tennessee and Arizona, still laughs when he hears the NCAA officials use the term student athlete.

“If you ask any player, I guarantee he’ll call himself an athlete first,” O’Neill says. “But they can’t count on a pro career until it happens, and it won’t happen for most of them. … Too many schools have the attitude that the student who blew off classes because he thought he was going pro didn’t do what the scholarship paid him to do, so they don’t see a need to offer anything else.” 

O’Neill believes there’s more the NCAA can do — starting with incentivizing former athletes who dropped out to return and complete degrees on the terms of their original scholarships.

“That support is not required by the NCAA, and there’s no reason why it can’t be,” explains Jim McIlvaine, a college and pro basketball veteran who formerly served as secretary-treasurer of the NBA Player’s Association. “If there were incentives in place for schools to bring these former players back, more programs would do it.”

Few of the major players wanted to talk about it. Requests for information went out to every ACC and SEC school, and only three (the ACC’s Virginia Tech and the SEC’s University of Mississippi and University of South Carolina) responded. (The NCAA didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Virginia Tech Associate Athletics Director Pete Moris reports his school offers a skills-development program for athletes. Virginia Tech graduates 57 percent of its Black male football and basketball players.

According to analysis this year by Forbes magazine, the top five most valuable college football teams are Texas A&M, which has a 24 percentage point gap between Black athlete and general athlete graduation rates; Texas, with a 20 point gap; Michigan, with a 14 point gap (but one of the highest Black athlete graduation rates, at 67 percent); Alabama, with a 12 point gap; and Ohio State, with a staggering 32 point gap.

The value of those programs is bolstered by fans, and some have suggested that fan intervention and protest could convince universities that athletes need more support than they’re getting. But that’s unlikely to happen on a national level.

“I don’t think fans give a lot of thought to the lives of these players after they finish playing football or basketball,” says McIlvaine. “New faces come along, and it’s more fun to watch the new guys than worry about whether yesterday’s guys are struggling.”

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