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One thing seems certain if the Supreme Court bans affirmative action in college admissions: The only Black men left on campus will be athletes.
This is already more literal than figurative at many universities, a bleak foreshadowing should the conservative high court rule next spring that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina can no longer use race as a factor in creating a diverse student body. The cases, which underwent oral arguments in October, are built around a mythology of discrimination against Asian applicants. All historical data shows that the real goal is suppressing Black, brown, and Indigenous applicants and giving white aspirants more slots.
On the surface, the cases have little to do with sports. But if affirmative action is indeed killed, sports will likely join conservatives and liberals at the hip over one of the greatest hypocrisies in higher education.
Conservatives wage war on classroom diversity as predominantly white crowds of students and alumni of all political stripes scream their heads off for Black men risking brain damage on the football field. With rare exceptions, the presence of Black men on campus is directly tied to the level to which they make the school millions by dunking balls or scoring touchdowns.
This will only become more grotesque with the predicted drop in Black enrollment if the Supreme Court puts affirmative action in the coffin.
TAKE THE TOP TIER OF DIVISION I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), where 131 schools spend an average of $15 billion a year for a chance at a postseason football bowl game. In that division, a Black man is seven and a half times more likely than a white man to be a scholarship athlete. One out of every 9 Black men on campus is on athletic financial aid, compared to 1 in 67 white men, according to 2021-2022 data that schools provided to the NCAA.
The numbers are often more skewed at universities with storied athletic programs. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which can boast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jackie Robinson, Rafer Johnson, and Arthur Ashe, 1 in 4 Black men are scholarship athletes; that’s 11 times greater than white men. Similarly, at perennial football power Notre Dame and basketball juggernaut Kansas, which won last year’s NCAA tournament championship, 1 in 4 Black men are there on athletic scholarships. Just 1 of every 81 white men at Kansas is on a sports scholarship.
Across all Division I schools that compete for bowl games and basketball tournament slots, the 1-in-4 ratio for Black men also holds at Utah, Oregon, Oregon State, Fresno State, SMU, Colgate, South Dakota State, Colorado State, and Arkansas. The ratio is 1 in 3 at Tulane, Washington, Wake Forest, Marshall, Rice, Brigham Young, Richmond, Villanova, Texas Christian, and Murray State. It is 1 in 2 at Utah State, Montana State, New Mexico State, Boise State, Gonzaga, Bryant, and Wyoming. Put another way, every other Black man at that last batch of schools is a scholarship athlete.
Contrast that to these white male athlete-to-student ratios: 1 in 155 at Alabama and Central Florida, 1 in 137 at Texas Tech, 1 in 131 at Arkansas, and more than 1 in 100 at Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Purdue, Arizona, Houston, Tennessee, Louisiana State, Miami (Florida), Auburn, Cincinnati, North Texas, San Jose State, Missouri, and Mississippi State. White scholarship athletes account for just 1.5 percent of male students on average. A Black student is at least ten times more likely to be on an athletic scholarship than a white student at 44 schools that played in the most recent bowl games or participated in last spring’s Division I basketball tournament.
There is no parsing this phenomenon by region or by a state’s actual racial makeup. At one extreme, schools in Western Mountain states might claim they have few Black students because of lower Black populations. But somehow, Wyoming, Boise State, Montana State, Gonzaga, Utah State, and Utah are so efficient at scouring all 50 states for Black athletic talent that 157 of their combined 275 Black male students are scholarship athletes (57 percent). That compares with 373 scholarship athletes among 20,185 white male students (1.8 percent), making Black men at those schools 32 times more likely to be scholarship athletes.
At the other extreme, Deep South states seem to have no difficulty finding Black male football and basketball players, while their overall student bodies do not come close to mirroring the Black population in their states. In the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the states of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Arkansas are, respectively, 33 percent, 27 percent, 17 percent, 17 percent, and 16 percent Black. But their flagship university Black enrollment is, respectively, only 6.7 percent, 11.2 percent, 4.5 percent, 6 percent, and 4.5 percent Black.
FOR ALL THAT EDUCATION IS LAUDED as a universal pathway to expand opportunity, higher education is one of society’s greatest enablers of the stereotype that the only thing a Black man can do is play basketball and football. The stereotype is so profound, it hounds Black men who don’t play ball.
That includes me. I’m a writer, wildlife photographer, bird-watcher, kayaker, and hiker. But the top presumptive question I’ve been asked by white strangers throughout my 67 years, by far, is if I played basketball (which I was awful at). My infant boys were repeatedly asked whether they want to grow up playing ball. I came up with a stock answer that usually results in a nervous smile and silence: “No, the next senator of Massachusetts.”
A 2015 narrative study published in the Harvard Educational Review surveyed 143 high-achieving Black student leaders across 30 campuses, from massive Midwestern flagships to the Ivy League, and only two could not remember dealing with a pernicious, painful stereotype. “Perhaps the most pervasive stereotype confronting participants,” the study stated, “was the presumption that they were student-athletes.”
Most poignantly, 30 of 32 Black men from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, or Purdue—six Big Ten schools—were mistaken for an athlete at some point. One Ohio State student said: “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.”
It has long been studied by academics, and observed by me as a former sportswriter, how the performance of Black athletes is disproportionately credited in the media to inborn, animalistic physical talents of quickness, speed, and leaping ability. The performance of white athletes is disproportionately attributed to intelligence, sometimes to the point of making up for a supposed paucity of inborn skills. That helps explain why 90 percent of Division I head coaches on bowl-eligible teams are white, while 57 percent of football scholarship athletes are Black, or why only 17 percent of head basketball coaches in the most powerful conferences were Black, while 57 percent of Division I scholarship basketball players are Black.
For those five-foot, five-inch Black dudes who are not athletes, the assumption that they are on campus to play sports conversely suggests they cannot compete on the same playing field with white dudes in disciplines like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
In a commentary this fall for the Union of Concerned Scientists, I highlighted groundbreaking research that white males with poorer grades in STEM introductory courses still graduate at higher levels than Black students with better grades. Other researchers detailed how Black STEM undergraduates and doctoral students are told to switch fields, while white peers get tutors.
Vanderbilt education professor Ebony McGee said that those Black students who survive the negativity to succeed in STEM face a final stereotype. She said it is impossible for a Black person in the sciences to be simply seen as a person working hard. “It’s as if they’re a genius or freak of nature,” she said.
RACE IS OFTEN A CRITICAL FACTOR in identifying talented students from underrepresented populations who may not have had the same advantages and privileges of many white students to improve test scores and extracurricular credentials. A McKinsey report this year found that only 8 percent of colleges and universities in the United States have both equitable student representation and graduation rates for underrepresented populations that match the general population.
After affirmative action was banned in college admissions in California in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209, Black enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley, almost immediately sunk from 6.3 percent of first-year students to 3.4 percent, and to 2.8 percent by 2015. The percentage of Black students at UCLA dropped almost immediately from 7.1 percent to 3.4 percent and also to 2.8 percent by 2005. The percentage of Latino first-years was more than halved at UCLA and UC Berkeley, from 21.6 percent to 10.5 percent at UCLA and from 15.6 percent to 7.3 percent at Berkeley.
After Michigan voters banned affirmative action in college admissions in 2006, the University of Michigan saw its Black enrollment crash from 7 percent to 3.9 percent last year. Michigan’s Native American enrollment evaporated by 90 percent, from 1 percent to 0.11 percent. Any efforts by Michigan, UCLA, or UC Berkeley to recover from the raw drop in underrepresented students have lost precious time in keeping up with the fact that youth of color are now in the majority in the United States.
It is sadly clear that huge swaths of white America would be ecstatic with the Supreme Court ending any fretting about racial admissions. Nine states now ban affirmative action in public-college admissions, and 20 states filed briefs in the Harvard and North Carolina cases in supportof a national ban for all universities, public or private.
Those 20 states, by no small coincidence, include nearly all Southern states with large Black populations, Southwestern and Southern states with some of the largest Latino populations, and some of the states with the largest Native American populations. In one of their briefs, these states allege that African American applicants with poorer academics have up to 14 times better chances of getting into college than Asian American candidates, under one scenario. They claim Harvard covers up reverse discrimination with a “convoluted and opaque admissions process.”
Funny, none of these states complain about their convoluted commitment to sports, with Black men being many times more likely to be a scholarship athlete than a white man, and far more likely than white athletes to leave college without a degree.
FOR 27 YEARS, for The Boston Globe and ESPN’s Andscape, I have followed the graduation rates of athletic programs in what I nicknamed the Graduation Gap Bowl. I began it at a time when too many teams in the football bowl games and the “March Madness” basketball tournament had Black player graduation rates well below 50 percent, with many even at zero. Under NCAA rules, sports programs need roughly a 50 percent graduation rate to avoid penalties that could include being banned from postseason bowl games or tournaments.
It is not quite as bad these days. But the racial disparities between Black players and white players abound at so many schools that it amounts to a national indictment of exploitation. Take Georgia, currently the nation’s top-ranked football team and the defending national champions. By even the most generous metrics, which the NCAA calls its “Graduation Success Rate” (GSR), only 47 percent of its Black players graduate, compared to 80 percent of white players.
The GSR has proven to have so many sleights of hand that it is increasingly a useless metric. Federal graduation rates chart whether students graduated from their original school within six years. The GSR was developed to not penalize teams whose athletes transfer out or go pro, but leave in “good academic standing,” which usually involves at least a 2.0 grade point average. The GSR also gives credit to schools that take in transfers and graduate them.
But in a universe where college coaches are paid at the level of the NFL and NBA, the movement for player rights has resulted in a roulette of players leaving their first school, gambling on finding another team where they can get more playing time. Many athletes lose the bet. Last year, nearly 10,000 NCAA Division I athletes entered what is called the “transfer portal.” But more than 4,000 of them have not yet landed at another school.
The federal rates, in my view, are a more relevant barometer than the GSR to at least get an idea of how much—or how little—schools graduate their original sports recruits. By that measure, Georgia graduates only 25 percent of its original Black football players, and 80 percent of its original white football players. Fourth-ranked Ohio State, Georgia’s opponent in the college football playoff semifinals, claims a Black player GSR of 83 percent. But it graduates only 48 percent of original Black players, way below the white player federal rate of 71 percent.
There are football powers that do better by their Black players relative to white players, such as number-two-ranked Michigan and number nine Kansas State. But on average, the top ten football teams this season graduated only 56 percent of their original Black recruits, compared to 84 percent of their original white players.
Usually formidable Oklahoma was not in the top ten this year, but is still of particularly interesting note. The state of Oklahoma banned affirmative action in 2012, and was one of the lead states filing briefs to the Supreme Court for a nationwide ban. It claimed that its flagship university has suffered no decline in diversity since its ban.
The brief failed to mention the level to which Black enrollment is disproportionately boosted by sports “affirmative action” for Black male athletes. Black men are five times more likely to be a scholarship athlete at Oklahoma than white men. But only 39 percent of Black players who start at Oklahoma graduate from there, compared to 90 percent of original white recruits.
It is worse in basketball, where the March Madness men’s tournament attracts $1 billion in television advertising revenue, $3 billion in betting, and on average 11 million viewers. The tournament’s second weekend is played among the teams that make the “Sweet Sixteen.” The top 16 basketball teams as of mid-December include Kentucky, UCLA, Indiana, Houston, Arizona, and Tennessee, which graduate a respective 13 percent, 17 percent, 18 percent, 20 percent, 22 percent, and 27 percent of original Black recruits.
Overall, the top 16 teams graduate only 39 percent of their original Black recruits, compared to 62 percent of original white recruits. That also includes the 33 percent Black player federal graduation rates of defending champion Kansas and perennial power Duke.
These are Black men whom universities most covet to attend their schools, but compared to white athletes, they are often spit out once their athletic usage is over. Even as the University of North Carolina defends affirmative action before the Supreme Court, its football team has a pitiful 45 percent federal graduation rate for its original Black recruits, compared to 84 percent for white players.
ANYONE WHO HAS WATCHED college basketball is familiar with the ritual when a Black player goes to the free throw line and broadcasters launch into a patronizing narrative of how sports was that young man’s ticket out of the ghetto (without, of course, any further commentary on why the nation has ghettos in the first place). But the 56 percent federal graduation rate of all Division I Black athletes is barely discernable from the 50 percent rate for Black students, whose success often comes in the face of financial struggles and fighting stereotypes on campus. Meanwhile, 67 percent of white athletes and 71 percent of white students in general graduate from their original schools within six years.
Universities have created an entertainment monstrosity, where nearly half of the billions spent on sports comes from university budgets, taxpayer support, and student fees. The United States is the only nation on Earth where colleges run football and basketball teams at the level of the NFL or NBA. And as a business, they’re terrible at it. Of the programs that compete for football bowl games, only one of every six annually have turned a profit since 2005. Last year, only nine of 130 schools turned a profit with sports.
Within this sketchy business model is more racial chicanery. Much of the revenues from the professionalized sports dominated by Black men, especially the dangerous, debilitating, and perhaps life-shortening sport of football, offset the costs of numerous non-revenue-generating sports predominantly played by white athletes. Black men are the majority of scholarship football and basketball players, and Black women are 42 percent of scholarship basketball players. But white women are by far the single-largest recipient of all sports athletic aid in Division I.
A 2019 analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP) noted that many of those white-dominated non-revenue sports are more accessible to wealthier participants, such as lacrosse, swimming, golf, ice hockey, rowing, tennis, and fencing. As conservatives target Black college applicants for allegedly having unfair advantages, CAP noted that “wealthier, mostly white students benefit most from the admissions advantage these more expensive sports provide, further perpetuating inequity in college admissions.”
You don’t hear much complaining about this from conservatives who would do away with affirmative action for Black, brown, and Indigenous students. Athletes recently won the right to make money from their names, images, and likenesses, but that scheme is likely to benefit a handful of stars and savvy social media manipulators. There is no large-scale reform in the works to prioritize graduating athletes with legitimate degrees, pay them uniform professional salaries in lieu of degrees, or consider the most radical and sane alternative: ending professionalized sports altogether.
Instead, the bowl games and March Madness go on, with their dubious use and abuse of Black men and a waste of billions of dollars that might be better spent on widening college access for everyone and supporting students all the way to graduation. Meanwhile, five-foot, five-inch 135-pound Black dudes like the one at Ohio State face the Damocles sword about to be dropped by the Supreme Court. That dude said he is congratulated for being an athlete when there is nothing about him that remotely suggests he is one. The nation’s highest court is about to say that there is nothing about him that remotely suggests he should be on campus at all.
Copyright 2022 Derrick Z. Jackson. First published in The American Prospect. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer-finalist journalist and in 2021 was the recipient of the Scripps-Howard opinion writing award and the Gold Award for Teen Nonfiction for ‘The Puffin Plan’ in the IBPA’s Benjamin Franklin Awards.
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“These are Black men whom universities most covet to attend their schools, but compared to white athletes, they are often spit out once their athletic usage is over. Even as the University of North Carolina defends affirmative action before the Supreme Court, its football team has a pitiful 45 percent federal graduation rate for its original Black recruits, compared to 84 percent for white players.”
Facts like these are, at the very least terrible, and at best, more than terrible. 😞
I couldn’t agree more, Lisa. College athletes are used and abused.
“nstead, the bowl games and March Madness go on, with their dubious use and abuse of Black men and a waste of billions of dollars that might be better spent on widening college access for everyone and supporting students all the way to graduation. ” — so frustrating!!
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Yes, the athletes are treated like indentured servants. Big revenues go to the universities and the athletes get very little.
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