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What Can Athletic Departments Learn From The Experience Of Black Male Athletes?

By Jonathan Howe, Temple

A recent study in the Antitrust Bulletin estimated that from 2005-2019 Black athletes in football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball at the Power 5 level have lost approximately $17-$21 billion in compensation ($1.2-$1.4 billion per year). These athletes, until recent changes, were not able to benefit from their name, image, and likeness and athletic departments were not compensating athletes directly beyond cost-of-attendance. It should also be noted that the sports responsible for the majority of this revenue generation are overrepresented by Black males. With this knowledge, a question remains: how do Black male college athletes (BMCAs) who play a large part in producing revenue for these institutions benefit from their participation?


The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) positions itself as “a member-led organization focused on cultivating an environment that emphasizes academics, fairness and well-being across college sports.” Similarly, for those individual athletic departments that have vision or mission statements, one would likely find a statement that alludes to improving the athlete experience or a focus on preparation that extends beyond the playing surface. Thus, athletic departments and the NCAA invest in academic support centers; provide individual scholarships; and create policies designed to improve their educational experience, such as limiting athlete practice time to 20 hours per week, even though this serves more as a loose recommendation and is rarely followed.


Since these institutions (athletic departments and the NCAA) provide some financial and academic support, there is a dominant argument that Black college athletes (and college athletes in general) should be satisfied with their education and benefits of being athletes. An opposing thought challenges this belief by arguing that Black male athletes are being exploited – utilized for their physical abilities but not provided fair compensation or support from a holistic perspective. When considering these distinctions, it is important to define how I use “education” and “exploitation.” Texas A&M scholar John Singer describes education of BMCAs in his recent book as “the ability to think critically about and learn how to effectively navigate social, political, and cultural challenges in this White-dominated society… [including] the process of gaining a certain level of consciousness and curiosity about oneself, others around them, and the world at large.” Put another way, education is more than obtaining a degree. On the other hand, my use of exploitation comes from California scholar Derek Van Rheenen, who argues exploitation is an unfair exchange between parties.


Now that we have definitions out of the way, let us revisit the question posed at the outset of this article. Such a question and the above discussion of education and exploitation was the impetus for myself and colleague Marc Johnston-Guerrero co-authoring a manuscript recently published in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport. Within this article, we generated a composite narrative from the perspective of a Black athlete support specialist (who we called Jamal) working with BMCAs. The narrative was guided by an accumulation of research on the BMCA experience.


Regarding the discussion of education or exploitation, from a financial perspective, it is clear that an unfair exchange exists between athletic departments, the NCAA, and BMCAs. Additionally, while educational aspects may exist, they are not the equivalent of Singer’s previously mentioned definition. Instead, literature and experience tell us that the educational experiences of Black college athletes are significantly limited.


While a simple answer for eradicating the exploitation of BMCAs would be to compensate them fairly, the truth is that the answer is much more complex. I want to deal with the educational aspect. For the remainder of this piece, I highlight some aspects of the BMCA experience, particularly at Division I historically white institutions (HWIs), discussed in our article and provide recommendations for college athletic departments to improve the educational experiences of this population.


Deficit-Laden Approaches


BMCAs face an uphill battle when they enter the campus setting, both from within their broader campus experience and within the athletic setting. The dominant narrative is that these Black men are on college campuses for their athleticism instead of intellectual abilities. Many Black male athletes enter the college setting academically underprepared as compared to their white counterparts. Although the NCAA boasts a 90% graduation rate at the Division I level, parsing out the data by race and gender shows that Black men have rates that are significantly below white athletes at all three levels of competition. Instead of assessing why this may be the case, Black male athletes are too often judged by what they do not have instead of the strengths they bring to the campus environment.


When we focus solely on the deficiencies and problems of the individual, we are taking a deficit approach. Instead, numerous pre-college factors influence the lack of academic preparedness, such as socioeconomic status, access to quality education, and family background. All of these factors are outside the direct control of the athletes themselves.


If we take a strength-based approach in discussing BMCAs, scholars highlight that BMCAs have the drive and intelligence that leads to academic success. When faculty and support services draw upon these strengths, a study by scholar Keith Harrison (now at Central Florida) and colleagues found a positive relationship to student success. Thus, when BMCAs have genuine support from those who care about their success, the results follow.  


An example from our article came as Jamal (athletic support specialist) developed a plan to provide continuous points of contact for faculty members to engage with the Black male athletes on campus. Scholars have argued that faculty members should not treat athletes differently from non-athlete students; however, faculty should be aware of the role they play in the academic success of the athlete. These continuous points of contact Jamal developed were informed by Comeaux and Harrison, who noted that inviting faculty to games, practices, and athletic banquets were ways to establish quality faculty-athlete relationships.


Predatory Recruiting Tactics and Barriers Influencing Navigational Capital


Colleges around the nation tend to engage in predatory recruiting tactics (un)intentionally in order to attract BMCAs to their campuses. This occurs by highlighting “top” programs, such as business or engineering, as if they are readily accessible to this population. Numerous barriers exist that make it difficult for Black college athletes to gain access and succeed in these programs. Highlighting prestigious programs to gain interest while not legitimately providing access is problematic.


In addition to emphasizing aspects of the overall campus experience that this population is less likely to reach, athletic departments tend to draw attention to the successes of their coaches in placing athletes in the professional ranks. BMCAs tend to be socialized into believing that ascending to the professional level in their sport is the best chance to climb the social ladder. This often occurs without an honest discussion of the very small likelihood that they will actually become professional athletes.


Scholar Tara Yosso, from California-Riverside, referred to navigational capital as having the skills necessary to maneuver through various social institutions. In our article, Johnston-Guerrero and I provide another example of Jamal interacting with a BMCA, which offers insight into how these recruiting tactics and lack of proper support influence navigational capital. In this exchange, the athlete discussed his desire to play professional basketball but wanted to pursue a degree in engineering in case that dream did not come to fruition.


Jamal would often get athletes who desired to play professionally, an occurrence he attributed to recruiting tactics that appease these dreams. Additionally, Jamal would also have athletes who aspire to be engineers or doctors but may not know the barriers they must cross to achieve those goals. The lack of transparency from athletic departments to Black athletes was a cause of frustration for Jamal. As is the case with many institutions, these “top” programs are often designed to restrict access to this population.


The initial, singular focus on a professional career pulls BMCAs away from educational endeavors, which influences the development of capital needed to navigate the campus environment. Additionally, a lack of upfront transparency places Black male athletes at a disadvantage when trying to navigate these challenges. In our example, Jamal noted that the athlete would need to miss practice in order to take the necessary prerequisite classes to get into the program. Now the athlete is in a position where he must approach his coach about missing practice time, ultimately impacting his playing time and rapport with the coaching staff. When we rely on these predatory recruiting tactics without being transparent and providing the necessary support, athletic departments place BMCAs in difficult situations that could adversely impact their development.


Recommendations to Improve the Experiences of Black Male College Athletes


To reiterate, the guiding question for this article is: How are BMCAs benefitting from their participation in sport? From a financial perspective, questions certainly remain. From an educational perspective, the potential benefits of participating in college sports are challenging to be realized. While I only described a couple of examples of the dynamic experiences of BMCAs, there are numerous steps athletic department stakeholders can take to ensure exploitation does not continue from an educational perspective.


The first recommendation is that athletic departments be intentional about increasing Black representation. A book chapter by Morris Council and colleagues discusses the benefits of hiring more Black male academic support staff to better address the needs of BMCAs. Increasing Black representation would also be a positive step in eliminating deficit approaches I previously mentioned. Another step in mitigating deficit-laden assumptions is finding ways to incorporate faculty members for informal relationship building with Black male athletes. As mentioned with an example from our publication, a way to do this is by inviting faculty to athletic events, which may provide insight into the college athlete experience and ultimately tear down the “us vs. them” mentality between academia and college athletics.


The next recommendation is that athletic departments incorporate holistic development approaches with their Black male college athletes, such as Collective Uplift, which Joseph Cooper and Black male athletes started at the University of Connecticut. The program has since been adopted at other institutions; however, it provides a framework for developing the Black male beyond their athletic pursuits. This recommendation will specifically address the barriers to navigational capital concern previously mentioned. Within a holistic development program, BMCAs are gaining the necessary tools to be able to navigate the educational setting of an HWI.


Another recommendation to improve the educational opportunities for BMCAs is to simply be honest and upfront during the recruiting period. Although your institution may boast a top business, engineering, or computer software program, what are the realities BMCAs will legitimately be able to pursue these opportunities? Are coaches going to allow BMCAs to miss practice time to pursue these degrees without retribution? Will coaches alter practice times so that BMCAs do not have to choose between academics and athletics? It is of the utmost importance that athletic departments prioritize the educational aspirations of BMCAs instead of solely what they can do for you within their sport.


The final recommendation is that all athletic personnel participate in culturally relevant developmental opportunities. Simply hiring more Black athletic support staff does not solve all educational inequities related to the BMCA. However, having department-wide investment in culturally relevant opportunities allows personnel to gain insight into the BMCA experience that can inform department practices. One such opportunity is the annual Black Student-Athlete Summit, which brings together athletes, administrators, and scholars to become more knowledgeable about the Black athlete experience and innovative practices to better support this population.


Overall, if athletic departments are recruiting BMCAs, they should prioritize the holistic development of this population. Part of that holistic development is ensuring that BMCAs get the most out of their educational experience. While this article may make some uncomfortable or challenge individuals to implement what may seem like daunting recommendations, the onus is on athletic departments to support and develop BMCAs, just as they promise their families when they sit in their living rooms on recruiting trips.