The sports industrial complex as currently constituted is built on the backs of black athletes and incentivises universities and high schools to emphasize the athletic potential of many children over their academic achievement. Many students are accepted into top tier colleges that typically would be denied entrance, if not for their potential to help win games and earn top dollar for the university. The merging of higher education and capitalism in college sports creates a high school-to-college pipeline, of star athletes, which makes education secondary and compromises the educational system. Teachers, counselors, coaches are all complicit.
High school counselors know the athlete-friendly teachers and courses that offer the least rigor. Teachers know who to keep eligible. School administrations may even pressure teachers to cooperate. As a result, kids are considered for college that would not have a chance at getting in were it not for sports. Once they make it to college, they are either kept eligible by questionable means or they simply do not graduate. Many of those that graduate do not have the knowledge or skills the degree signifies.
Sports vs. the Sports Industry
Growing up, sports was a constant companion in my life. I played basketball as far back as I can remember. I played football from age ten through high school and community college. The importance of athletics in the lives of children is not lost on me. The fun, camaraderie, sportsmanship, collective defeat and triumph and physical training were all good for me and I have seen the positive attributes of youth sports. My own children have all been involved in organized sports as well.
However, the system, the sports superstructure, from my vantage point as a high school teacher, is beyond flawed. There are success stories in which young people are able to use sports to earn an education, maybe play professionally, and go on to do great things and become better people in the process. Many young people have had the chance to broaden their horizons and go where they never thought they would due to playing high school sports. There is another side to the coin, the business of college sports. This is harmful for the educational development of black youth. I say black youth, young men in particular in particular, because they dominate the most visible high school and college sports, football and basketball.
This sports superstructure is a capitalist venture based primarily on the athletic prowess of young black men. It is exploitive and even brutal and callous to some young athletes. The profitability of professional sports is contaminating the educational system that it is linked to. The education of countless talented black youth is one major sacrifice being made at the altar of the almighty dollar.
Black Youth and the Sports Assembly Line
Black youth are bombarded with images of wealthy black sports and entertainment figures to the point that they think those are viable routes out of the neighborhood, out of poverty, to success. Football and basketball are the sports with the lowest graduation rates in college. They happen to be saturated with black talent. Over half of college football and basketball players are black men, yet they only make up about 3% of undergraduate students. African American men are woefully underrepresented in the university as a whole and in specific fields of study, but jam packed into sports programs where many do not even graduate, or are kicked out of the university if they cannot perform athletically. Black athletes are fodder for an industry, that will eventually toss them aside, and few will actually benefit.
The process starts as children. Many black youth with demonstrable talent are put on the sports assembly line before they are out of elementary school. They are told, ‘this is your ticket’. Even before they are aware of the academic requirements, children know they are going to college on a sports scholarship. They associate college life with athletics. The only exposure they have of college is a visible sports program. Once they become older and head to high school, grades are just something they have to get to stay eligible. Education is not valued in its own right, youth are encouraged to get by and stay eligible as opposed to trying their best, earning high marks and taking challenging courses.
We are placing athletic development ahead of educational development. I have seen students that cannot write a paragraph get pushed through classes and kept eligible by maneuvering them through the educational gauntlet. Teachers are asked to give promising athletes advantages that would never be offered to other students. I have witnesses students who lack reading and writing skills, or are not doing well in one class removed and placed in less challenging classes to ensure their eligibility. If a kid cannot read or write, our concern as an institution should be their education, not eligibility or a scholarship. We should be ashamed to graduate students that have grown leaps and bounds athletically, but have not made similar strides academically.
Black students are socially conditioned that sports and entertainment are realms for black people, but the same conditioning does not exist when it comes to intellectual pursuits. Black youth should be encouraged to be scientists and engineers as much as they are encouraged athletically. The schools system apparently agrees that sports is best option for black youth, since they perpetuate the narrative. No one says explicitly that, “sports are more important than academics”, but the messages they get is that they are expected to spend more time practicing and preparing for sports than school. As sports are stressed over academics, and money is used for sports programs at the expense of education, while students are failing academically, the college sports industry has become a fetter on education.
Sports to Finance College
The parents, coaches and teachers of these students have very practical reasons for supporting such a system. They want the best for the student and hope to give them a chance to be successful and that starts with financing an education. The fact that child sports is growing exponentially, primarily by parents trying to find a way to finance college is an indictment against the financial accessibility of higher education today.
Parents and students are banking on sports to get them to college instead of their intellect. Many will be woefully unprepared for the academic rigor of college life. Some have been walked through high school with the easiest schedules possible, instructed by teachers who ‘play ball’ with administration to pass the kids on. For the ones who graduate high school and go on to college, this will continue as they are herded into athlete friendly majors and classes to keep them eligible.
It is these black athletes that bring in the money that funds the university as a whole, way beyond the athletic programs. The revenue and prestige that elite college athletes bring to a university in turn puts pressure on high school programs and coaches to win games and get their athletes attention from college scouts.
All this attention and training is provided for these children to progress athletically, in the midst of a permanent achievement gap. There is no secret about the underachievement of black students, there are millions of children who would be better served learning to perform basic math skills, reading and writing at grade level than watching film and lifting weights. The achievement gap between black students and their counterparts has been festering for years. Nothing is being done about it. Little more than half of black boys graduate on time, compared to 80% of whites. If black students were an educational priority, their lack of academic achievement would be considered a national crisis. No one lifts a finger to address how African American students are being underserved academically, but the cogs of the athlete mill keep churning out elite black athletes to bring in revenue for universities that many black athletes will not graduate from.
College sports does not have to be the main gateway to professional football and basketball. There is no reason why the two have to be married. It just so happens that these are the most exciting, revenue producing sports and they are a cash cow to universities. The pairing of sports and education and the business interests it represents at the higher levels compromises the best educational interests of students. Sports like soccer and baseball -that do not generate the amount of university money as the African American dominant, football and basketball- have other routes besides college sports to play professionally. The NCAA is a racket based off the exploitation of black athletes. Too many are essentially robbed of an education as children and carried through school; their talents are used to make tons of money for universities while many will not graduate, only a small percentage will play professional sports, and even less will have the tools for a successful life beyond sports.
The treatment of black students is indicative of our educational priorities and our general view of black males. The ease with which we dismiss the educational needs of black students and simultaneously exploit their athletic gifts is proof that they are still seen largely as easily exploitable, physically strong and intellectually lacking.