Dr. Shaun Harper’s report, “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports,” is a must read for every Division I administrator, support staff member, and men’s basketball and football coach. Dr. Harper has gone to great efforts to paint a true picture of the reality that is taking place at NCAA Division I Power 5 Conference schools across the country when it comes to Black male student-athletes, their representation on revenue producing teams compared to Black males on campus, and their level of academic success. In order to do so, Dr. Harper has analyzed the Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) of Black male student-athletes from every Power 5 school, and compared the numbers to the FGR of all athletes, all black men, and all students, at their respective universities. When looking at the numbers some people may be surprise while others may see exactly what they expected. LSU, Georgia, and Florida round out the bottom of a sad category titled “Universities With Lowest Black Male Student Graduation Rates” with percentages of 34, 36, and 37 percent respectively. The University of Florida, Auburn, Mississippi State University and LSU lead the way in Black male student-athlete overrepresentation on their revenue producing teams compared to Black male students in the general student body. I hear Dr. Harper and I think he makes some excellent points. I also was surprised to see that institutions were failing Black males on such a catastrophic level so I decided to take a deeper look at some of the numbers.
As mentioned previously, the FGR is the measure Dr. Harper used to analyze academic success. The FGR is a measure that all colleges and universities that offer athletic aid are federally mandated to report. The FGR measures academic success by having institutions look at each cohort of first time, full-time college freshman, and tracking whether they graduate in six years. Everybody in the cohort that graduates in six years or less is a success. Anybody that does not graduate from their original institution of enrollment in the six-year timeframe is considered an academic failure. That includes students who drop out for a variety of reasons, students who transfer to other institutions, and student-athletes that go on to play professionally. Dr. Harper acknowledges that the FGR is not the ideal measure for the reasons I just outlined, but he also recognizes that there is no other measure that can accurately compare the graduation rates of student-athletes, and the general student body.
That being said, can we truly look at student-athletes who go on to play professionally as an academic failure? While only 2% of NCAA football student-athletes, and 1.8 % of men’s basketball student-athletes go pro, how many of those student-athletes are Black males? According to the most recent data the NFL is 69.7 % Black, and the NBA is 74.3% Black. LSU would make for an interesting case study in this sense. While LSU only graduates 34% of their Black male student-athletes according to the FGR data, they have had 25 Black male student-athletes drafted into the NFL as underclassmen in the last six years. The average NFL career is only three and a half years, but the money these young men can make with an NFL contract can be life changing for them and their families. LSU also has a program called “Project Graduation” where any former scholarship student-athlete who left to play professionally can return to complete their degree and they will have their tuition, fees, and books paid for. I’m sure that LSU has room to improve the ways they serve their Black male student-athletes, as does every other institution, but I also think they are doing right by their student-athletes in many ways.
Another aspect to consider is transfer rates among Black male student-athletes. Dr. Harper acknowledges this is one limitation of his report. It is estimated that 40% of men’s basketball student-athletes will transfer by the end of their sophomore year. Since Black male student-athletes make up 56% of Division I Men’s Basketball student-athletes we can safely say that approximately half of these transfers are Black males. While many of these transfers lose credits, they are also forced to sit out of competition for one academic year which gives them an opportunity to catch up on credits. According to NCAA transfer data, out of 11,557 Division 1 FBS Football student-athletes, 473 are transfer students. Black males make up 48% of Division 1 FBS student-athletes so again, we can confidently recognize that a portion of these transfers are Black males, and they are not necessarily academic failures.
Despite my doubt of the accuracy of the FGR for the reasons I just outlined, the information in this report is still valuable. While Black student-athletes do go professional, and transfer, Power 5 institutions are largely failing their Black student-athletes based on the numbers. In Dr. Harper’s breakdown of the major results, he reports that only Georgia Tech University, the University of Miami, and Vanderbilt University graduated Black male student-athletes at rates higher than or equal to all student-athletes at their institution. Only three universities, the University of Louisville, Mississippi State University, and the University of Utah, graduated their Black male student-athletes at a rate higher than or equal to the graduation rate for all students at their institution. I mentioned the discrepancies between Black male representation on revenue producing teams compared to the student body earlier, but this chart gives an actual side by side of the numbers. It is astonishing that Black males are so underrepresented at these institutions and this is something that Dr. Harper addresses in his recommendations section.
Besides the takeaways we can gather from reviewing these numbers, it is also integral that we pay attention to Dr. Harper’s recommendations. Dr. Harper recommends that university leaders, specifically admissions officers, target Black male students and recruit them with as much effort as coaches recruit Black male student-athletes. He also asks that administrators commit the financial and human resources to Black males, that are also afforded to student-athletes such as academic advising, and tutoring services. The final recommendation he makes for university leaders is that provosts, deans, and department chairs need to address with faculty the implicit biases they may have against student-athletes, and Black males. Dr. Harper also asks that athletic departments committees that focus on racial equality. These committees would ideally be comprised of members of the athletic department, but also from across campus. Another recommendation that may seem obvious is to study Black male student-athletes who have succeeded in college, and learning how and why they were able to succeed. By learning from them, coaches and administrators will be able to help other Black male student-athletes find a similar level of success. Dr. Harper also recommends that the media begin writing stories, and creating films or documentaries that praise Black male student-athletes for their academic progress. Dr. Harper’s final recommendation is that Black male student-athletes and their families avoid the temptation of choosing a university for giving them the best opportunity to get to the league, and instead asks them to ask hard questions such as; What is the graduation rate for Black men on your team? What will happen to me if I don’t get drafted?
During my job search one of the most profound questions I was asked was “There is a gap between White male student-athletes, and Black male student-athletes. Why do you believe this exists, and what do you believe we can do to fix it?” My response was that African-Americans and other minorities face educational disparities starting in elementary school, and this impacts their development and stunts their opportunity for educational growth. When you’re the star athlete people are more likely to value you for your athletic prowess and make sure that you’re pushed along even if you aren’t ready for it. Then when they get to college, they are sold the dream in recruiting, and what a great fit it will be for them athletically, but too often they don’t realize what is in store for them academically. That new level of academic rigor combined with the fact they are likely at a predominantly white institution where they may be the only minority in a given class can be overwhelming. When they get to college we need to meet them where they are, and make sure that they have every resource available that is needed to be successful. Whether that be tutoring, counseling, services to assist with learning disabilities, workshops, or any other resource, we need to be invested in their development. We need to show them that we care. We need to make them feel like they belong.
As a white male who has worked in student-athlete support for 3 years, I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I can promise you that I care though, and with people like Dr. Harper raising awareness, and people like us on the ground level investing into the lives of our student-athletes, we can change the inequities that currently exist together.