The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) annual game is the pinnacle of college football. Every year, arguably the best college football players in the nation face off in this fanfare and excitement-filled game. Jamal is one of these players. Jamal has strived his whole life to make it to this position. Growing up poor on the south side of Atlanta, all Jamal has known from a young age is football. Identified at a young age as a skilled player, he was sent to a special “Diploma Mill” high school where the main focus was football and not education. Getting the grades sufficient to make it to play at the college level, he took his talents to a Division I school to play for one of the top college teams in the nation. His school mandates he majors in African Studies, and he has a tutor assigned to him who ends up doing most of Jamal’s schoolwork. By his final year in college, he is looking to make an impression on the NFL scouts who are watching him play in the BCS game, which will be Jamal’s final college football game. By this point, he has realized that professional football is his best hope of achieving long-term success in life.
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In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in nearly 70 years to play for a Major League Baseball (MLB) team, marking the end of the racial divide in the sport. At that time, there were no blacks in the National Football League (NFL) or the National Basketball Association (NBA). Today, however, black players represent nearly 70% and 75% of the NFL and NBA respectively, which some argue is an over-representation relative to blacks’ representation in the American population (Preston). While at face value these statistics may imply that black athletes, and the black community as a whole, are now better off than they have been historically, one must delve deeper to analyze the truth behind these numbers. Seventy-eight percent of NFL players and 60 percent of NBA players file for bankruptcy within five years of retiring (Flynn 52). Furthermore, increasing numbers of black athletes are sacrificing a quality education just for a chance at reaching a professional league. Some, such as African-American professor and essayist Gerald Early, have claimed that since the integration of professional sports, the black community has actually been harmed. Has the integration of professional athletics in America made black athletes better off than they were pre-integration, or has integration highlighted a complex set of issues and expectations within the black community?
1. Athletics in the Black Community
In post-integration America, many issues face black athletes. The main issue is the over-emphasis on sports, mainly basketball and football, in the black community. Since integration, many black teens, as well as their often single mothers, have seen athletics as a way out of a historically low-income upbringing (Badger). In Varsity Green, Mark Yost explains that even though these players know the odds are stacked against them to get into a professional league, or even a Division I school, many still pursue this route and fall into the same kinds of decisions and hopes that the fictional Jamal did. Yost argues that much of this over-emphasis is correlated with the media’s portrayal of sports figures as super-humans of sorts, and then advertisers and corporations cashing in on this hype. This can be seen, for example, in the marketing of expensive sneakers to America’s youth population. Shoes like the new LeBron James sneaker made by Nike, which sell for well over $100, are a hit among young people who idolize sports heroes like James. Perhaps they believe that if they wear the same expensive sports apparel as their idols, they too will one day achieve greatness. Although these shoes are expensive, one will often find that people of low income will lust for them, and sometimes even kill for them. In 2012, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on the death of fourteen-year-old Paul Sampleton, who was killed by his classmates in his home because they were envious of his expensive sneakers (Stevens).
Much more pressing is the direct exploitation of disadvantaged young athletes by the colleges they go on to play for. These athletes are targeted at a young age to join travel teams that promise greater probability of getting attention from the big schools. Of course these teams aren’t free, but for a shot at college and professional ball leading to a chance to make a better life, many families shell out the money to send their child athletes. Amazingly, Pete Thamel and Adam Himmelsbach reported in the New York Times about coaches even starting the recruiting process for kids that are not yet even in middle school. Rhonda Green, whose son Samuel is a 6’5’’ eighth grader, recalls being contacted when her son was merely in the fifth grade. She recounts how her son asked, “Why are these coaches asking me to come to the camps?” (Himmelsbach). This targeting of young athletes further pushes blacks in the direction of athletics as a ticket to future success.
The lucky few that do go on to play for a Division I school are usually awarded free-ride scholarships as well as small spending stipends. However, these athletes bring in millions of dollars a year for their institutions, of which they will likely never see a dime. Further up the ladder, for those that are fortunate enough to make it to the NFL or NBA from their college team, players will rake in billions from TV contracts, apparel, and other sources of revenue. When the careers of professional athletes end, most go bankrupt within five years (Preston). The media largely ignores these forgotten superstars, and journalists and sportscasters turn their attention to the excitement and wonder that comes with a new draft class. Though some end up benefiting in the long term, this perpetual money-making machine has been created largely to the detriment of countless black athletes.
2. The Money Problem
Why do most professional athletes find themselves bankrupt within five years of retiring? One might think that, with all of the money they make over their careers, superstar athletes are more than compensated for their time and that they invest their earnings for their post-career futures. Wyatt Investment Research has found that major reasons for bankruptcy lie in overspending, short careers, lack of financial knowledge, poor investment decisions, and an association with the ‘wrong crowd’ (Preston 1). Although black professional athletes are rather handsomely compensated, because they typically come from underprivileged backgrounds and lack rigor in their educations, they commonly mismanage the sudden influx of wealth they experience as well-paid athletes. In addition, most athletes are never able recreate in retirement the amount of income they had while still in the game, and, although pension plans for athletes have improved, most do not start paying out until twenty to thirty years after retirement (Flynn 52).
Although leagues such as the NFL currently conduct workshops on personal finance, their effectiveness has become a point of discussion. Levi Brown, former offensive tackle for the Arizona Cardinals, opined in a USA Today report: “They try to give you some background, and it’s better than nothing,” and that “at least you know the statistics for what’s ahead.” Brown goes on to describe the volume of calls he received from advisers and other people after being drafted, explaining, “In any business where you make a lot of money, there are people trying to get their hands on it” (Wiles).
The problem of money is undoubtedly an issue experienced by not only black athletes, but also by American athletes as a whole; however, since black athletes make up a majority of the NFL and NBA, it is very much a black problem. As long as the public pays little attention to these broke athletes, the system will continue on its current path.
3. Are Professional Athletics the Problem?
Some may argue that the post-segregation period of professional athletics has been unambiguously beneficial to black athletes. Black athletes now enjoy the same equal opportunity that white athletes have had since the inception of American professional athletics. In addition, blacks have managed to excel in many professional sports, especially in basketball and football.
Others may believe that the over-representation of blacks in these sports is something that will be self-correcting, noting the changing dynamic of baseball within the black community. In their article, “Baseball Demographics, 1947-2012,” authors Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt discuss black’s falling in representation in the MLB. They note that black representation in the league has fallen from an all-time-high of nearly 19% in 1975 to a low of about 7% in 2012 – much closer to blacks’ representation in the American population (Armour and Levitt). While the issue of over-representation in baseball may appear to have passed on its own, the reason for the decline may not be so intuitive. In “The Demise of the African American Baseball Player,” Jeffrey Standen theorizes that the high cost of baseball, not societal pressure against blacks’ over-representation in the league, caused the sport to become less attractive within the black community. Standen argues that sports with “costs [that] are borne in part by public agencies, such as football or basketball, attract large numbers of minority participants” (Standen 425). Thus, it is unlikely that basketball and football will witness the same correction in black representation seen in baseball without further intervention.
The over representation of black athletes in college and professional sports is a complex issue. Some scholars and journalists also argue that the increasing number of black athletes has helped the image of black people as a whole. Because people of other races see these players as athletically superior, they must also respect them and their race more. In science journalist Jon Entine’s book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, he suggests that genetic differences may account for why black athletes tend to demonstrate superiority in so many sports. He cites several compelling examples, such as Kenyans consistently being the best marathon runners. He decides to overlook regional genetic differences, and chooses to compare blacks as a whole to other racial groups, such as whites. More importantly, Entine believes that blacks do not tend towards sports as a way out of their poor upbringings, but rather because they are naturally superior at athletics. I disagree with this premise because if this were the case, why would sports that are dominated by those of higher income, such as golf or polo, not have higher black participation?
The large number of black athletes has perpetuated the dangerous stereotype that if blacks are physically superior to whites, they must also be intellectually inferior. This is one reason that blacks were often portrayed as monkeys historically. Being athletic, or good at football or basketball, has become expected of those that are black; but being smart has not been generally associated with being black in any meaningful way.
4. The Root Cause
In his book, A Level Playing Field: African Athletes and The Republic of Sports, Gerald Early reveals that some commentators have compared the current state of athletics in the black community to that of slavery or the gladiators in Roman times. Black athletes willingly sacrifice their entire lives and degrade themselves just to have a chance to compete in the coliseum of a professional sports arena for the amusement of the white majority. After they are too old to fight, the players retire and are left with nothing, as new ‘gladiators’ come into the game.
While I think this an extreme view of the current situation, there is certainly some truth to this assertion. Early argues that because of the cartelization of college sports by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), and of professional sports by the NBA, MLB, and NFL, comparisons can naturally be made to gladiators or slavery. This is because these organizations operate as a monopsony, a market where there is a single buyer, in the labor market for professional sports. In such a market the laborer, or athlete, is exploited by the buyer, or league, to generate profit (Early 207). This is not to say that black athletes are actually slaves, forced to become athletes, but rather that media and societal pressures make it seem to many blacks that athletics is the only way out of their current circumstance.
5. Is There a Solution?
What can be done to right the current wrongs of black athletics? Sports writer Frank Deford argues against the current system in which black athletes sacrifice the quality of their education to bring in large revenues for their colleges. Instead, he proposes, the NCAA should make a real effort to insure that all athletes at these institutions are receiving proper educations and not just full-ride scholarships (Deford 1). An article in the Journal of Sports Management that addresses the transition of black athletes to other fields recommends that black athletes receive special mentoring in the early years of their college experience in order to be sure that they succeed academically as well as on the field (Kelly and Dixon 498). While these changes certainly would help, especially for football players as they spend more time in college on average than their basketball playing peers, I do not think it would be enough to remedy the current situation. The over-emphasis on sports in the black community, as explained by Early, stems from sports being seen as the only way out of impoverished upbringings. To truly tackle this complex problem, the upbringing of these impoverished youth would need to be changed. Just how to best change this circumstance is a complex issue in itself without a clear solution.
A widely accepted approach is to target reforms within the public education system in low-income districts. Government programs can be tailored toward this specific goal of raising educational standards nationwide. While this is certainly a crucial step in fixing the issue, I believe that this would not be enough, as black youth have to want to pursue education over sports, not be forced to change their minds by a school. To change this mindset, which is a mindset that exists not only with black youth but also with youth across the nation, more positive role models that have achieved success through education would have to be made known to these children. Just as youth regularly see highlights of LeBron dunking on television, children must also be delivered similar ‘highlights’ of scientists, lawyers, surgeons, and other leaders from their community. Through this method of positive peer pressure combined with educational reforms, perhaps more youth would begin to tend toward academics rather than sports. In order to truly solve the problem of black over-representation in basketball and football, along with the incredible rate of bankruptcy among this group, black youth need to know that education, not athletics, is the much surer way out of their circumstance.
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Unfortunately, this was not Jamal’s path or his mindset. He adamantly pursued a career in the NFL, foregoing a meaningful education. When his team loses the BCS game, Jamal goes undrafted the following the year. His football career, which he prepared his whole life for, ends. What can Jamal do now that he is in his mid-twenties and without a quality education? This hypothetical situation plays out countless times per year for Division I athletes.
I myself play football at the collegiate level for MIT. Unlike Jamal, my desire to play football did not originate as a career aspiration, but rather as a desire to have a fun and to have a challenging extra-circular activity. I recognized from an early age that although I had the wish to one day play at the professional level, academics was the surer way to achieve success. My father always entertained the talk of my desire to play sports professionally, but he drilled into me the principle that academics should always come first. If aspiring athletes such as Jamal could realize that academics, not athletics, should take priority, the problem of the over-pursuit of athletics in the black community could begin to slowly be solved. Black youth need a quality education combined with positive mentoring from their community, as my father did with me, in order to achieve success outside of athletics.
The post-integration black athlete is in a worse state than before the integration of the professional leagues. This outcome stems from blacks now seeing athletics, particularly basketball and football, as a way out of their often-impoverished upbringings, despite the odds against them. To clarify, this is not to say that segregation is the solution to this problem, but rather integration has further exposed the problems of poverty within the black community. Before integration, blacks could not use athletics as a way to enhance their socioeconomic status because the professional leagues barred them from entry. In order to solve this complex problem today, a cultural shift in the black community away from sports and towards education would be needed. As a black athlete, I have witnessed that athletics and academics can work hand in hand. The key is that I see academics as the long-term solution to achieve wealth, while athletics is extracurricular – it provides an escape from the daily life of being a student. If black youth begin to see education as a means to success, and athletics as extracurricular, I believe the situation could start to be remedied and the problem of over-representation corrected.
Armour, Mark, and Daniel R. Levitt. “Baseball Demographics, 1947-2012.” Baseball Demographics, 1947-2012. Society for American Baseball Research, 11 May 2013. Web. 24 July 2015.
Badger, Emily. “The Unbelievable Rise of Single Motherhood in America over the Last 50 Years.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 July 2015.
Deford, Frank. “NCAA Should ‘Bolster And Reinforce’ African-American Players.” National Public Radio 23 July 2013: n. pag. Print.
Early, Gerald. A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.
Entine, Jon. Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It. Public Affairs, 2001. Print.
Flynn, Ed. “Bankrupt Professional Athletes.” ABI Journal 33.4 (2014): 52–92. Print.
Himmelsbach, Adam, and Pete Thamel. “Middle School Is Basketball’s Fiercest Recruiting Battleground.” New York Times 26 June 2012: A1. Print.
Kelly, D, and M Dixon. “Successfully Navigating Life Transitions Among African American Male Student-Athletes: A Review and Examination of Constellation Mentoring as a Promising Strategy.” Journal of Sport Management 28.5 (2014): 498–514. Print.
Preston, Chris. “Five Reasons Professional Athletes Go Broke.” Wyatt Investment Research 25 Mar. 2013: n. pag. Print.
Standen, Jeffrey. “The Demise of the African American Baseball Player.” Lewis & Clark Law Review 18.2 (2014): 421–451. Print.
Stevens, Alexis. “Gwinnett Police Release Details on Shooting Death of Boy, 14.” AJC.com: Atlanta News, Sports, Atlanta Weather, Business News. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
Wiles, Russ. “Pro Athletes Often Fumble the Financial Ball.” USATODAY.COM. Arizona Republic, 22 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 July 2015.
Yost, Mark. Varsity Green. Stanford Economics and Finance, 2009. Print.