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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No. 2, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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Farzana Hassan
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
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Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

heavy burdens of black college athletes



Thabiti Lewis teaches English/Comparative Ethnic Studies and American Studies at Washington State University Vancouver. He is the author of several essays on African American literature and race and sport in American culture. He is also author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America.



Amid the summertime quiet on college campuses and in the collegiate world of sports, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) has made quite a bit of newsworthy noise. Not only did it expand the basketball pool from 65 to 68 teams (it is considering eventually expanding the field to 96 teams) and ink a new $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to air the tournament from 2011-2024, but it also hired former University of Washington President Mark Emmert as its new president.

These news items are important because they will exacerbate the low graduation rates in collegiate sports particularly among black athletes. While it is old news that collegiate athletics has veered down the wrong path, what is often ignored is the exploitation of the young black men who heavily populate the highest revenue-producing sports. Graduation rates of black football and basketball athletes are consistently among the lowest in the nation. The woeful academic performance of black athletes in those sports must be dealt with swiftly. Their academic interests must be served effectively. It seems unlikely the situation will improve any time soon because the new leader of the NCAA proved incapable of demanding that his university uphold the NCAA academic principles while he was president of the University of Washington.

This tragedy requires emergency attention from African American leaders, parents, school districts, the NCAA and universities.

A culture of greed is at the root of those pitiful graduation rates. Basketball and football programs produce the most revenue in most athletic departments, which have placed a severe strain on education priorities. Take the 2010 men's Division I basketball tournament, in which only 31 percent of participating teams graduated at least 70 percent of their black players. Meanwhile, 79 percent of the teams in the tournament graduated at least 70 percent of their white players. Among the bottom 10 graduation rates of tournament teams, Maryland led the list with an eight percent graduation rate, while four other schools graduated 30 percent or less (University of California, University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and University of Washington). Rounding out the infamous list were the University of Tennessee, Clemson, Louisville, Baylor, Kentucky, New Mexico University and Georgia Tech at between 30 and 38 percent. As dismal as these statistics are, they are even lower among black athletes. American college athletics has become wholly commercialized.

Amateur athletes, especially youth of colour in high-revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball, are shamelessly exploited. If the NCAA is to be true to its mission of protecting athletes from exploitation, some drastic changes in structure and values that drive collegiate sports must take place as soon as possible. The most logical solution is to hit institutions where they really hurt. Below are six possible remedies that could have tremendous impact:

* Eligibility requirements need to be raised even higher at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Parents and black community leaders need to forcefully demand higher academic standards beginning in grammar school.

* Reduce the salaries of coaches, athletic administrators and NCAA officials, making coaching raises and bonuses contingent on academic achievement and graduation rates -- not victories.

* Draft and institute an Athletes' Bill of Rights for all 50 states that advocates a guarantee of the first three years of scholarships and income for college athletes of income-producing sports (a reasonable stipend or in a trust- receivable upon graduation).

* Superstar high school athletes in basketball should simply skip college and play overseas for one or two years before entering the NBA draft.

* College athletes should consider unionizing.
* With the help of the NAACP or a similar organization, use revenues from football and basketball to institute Literacy and Math Practice Squads for secondary schools in poor communities.

The NCAA's efforts to alter the academic landscape in collegiate sport in 2004, although well intended, produced weak reforms. The changes simply do not address the needs of athletes participating in high-revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball. It's disingenuous to act as if all student-athletes' graduation rates are not a major issue. Meanwhile, administrators such as Mark Emmert wink or simply look the other way as students fail, drop out or are exploited. What is worse is that not enough outrage or hardnosed action has emerged from parents and leaders in black communities about these deplorable graduation rates. Boyce Watkins, James Coleman, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and other activists and scholars have spoken out or called for action by NCAA and university officials of colleges, but their efforts have registered negligible impact so far.

As far back as 1989, only 41 percent of male Division IA college basketball players graduated, and the rates for black athletes were appreciably lower. By 2003, graduation rates were so woeful that NCAA had no choice but to retool its enforcement division and revise its rules to improve graduation. The new rules require players coming out of high school with low SAT scores to have much higher grade point averages (at least a 3.55). The NCAA now penalizes teams whose players fail to complete 20 percent of their degree each year. (Programs risk losing eligibility for players, scholarships, postseason bids, recruiting privileges, as well as NCAA membership rights). Schools that fall below the standards receive warning letters the following year. Consistently poor performing teams could begin losing scholarships in the third year. But not until the fourth year from the start of the infractions do schools lose tournament privileges and money. However, the new academic rules launched in 2003 have yet to produce real change. As of 2010, black players in the high-revenue-producing sports still have the lowest graduation levels. But NCAA and university administrators seem to wink and nod, or simply look the other way because football and basketball happen to be huge ‘money trains’ for them all.



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