Take a Page From Athletic Philosophy to Solve Black-White Academic Gap

With college football’s bowl season starting, ESPN has recently published an article titled “Bowl-bound student-athletes getting better in the classroom.” The article provides an in-depth look at the academic progress of the players from the 78 teams competing in bowl games this season. Much of this analysis consists of addressing graduation rates for the football players attending these schools. These numbers are then contrasted with the results from previous years.

As one could probably decipher from the article’s title, there have been some significant improvements when it comes to the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of student athletes who play football. The GSR for these teams participating in bowls is 77%. This is up from 75% in 2016. All bowl teams had a GSR of at least 50%. This feat was not achieved by the bowl teams from a season ago.

But an area of concern for these athletes continues to be the gap in academic achievement between blacks and whites. Although the difference has narrowed, there is still a 16 point advantage in graduation rates of white football players over black ones. The number of these schools with GSRs displaying a 30 percentage point gap between whites and blacks who play the sport is also on the decline. However, eight of the 78 teams still have this kind of disparity.

Although we can see positive trends when it comes to the academic achievement of black athletes, we should also account for what has been the source of the continued divide between black student athletes and those of other races. What factors still persist that are causing these results? How do we identify them? What, if anything, can be done to remedy this situation?

For one possible solution, let’s look to the other institution that categorizes these young men as student athletes to begin with. That is, let’s observe the success of blacks in the realm of football. After all, there are now more blacks playing Division One Football than any other race (blacks comprise an even larger percentage of NFL players). This is despite only about 13% of the US population being black. Clearly the problem of a lack of black competitiveness in academics is non-existent on the football field. But why is this the case? Is it because there is some government funded organization that dumps extraordinary amounts of money into making black kids into great football players? No, the reason lies in the demand for excellence that blacks place upon themselves to be great at their sport. It is the responsibility that these blacks take to perfect their skills that lead to being able to compete on this kind of level. Therefore, the solution to the academic deficiencies that black students face is through a desire for personal greatness.

The articles’ author then shares a quote from a discussion he had with famous civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. As far as black student athletes were concerned, Jackson stressed that,

“The collegiate ‘student-athlete’ must continue to maximize both sides of that title by pursuing excellence both in the classroom and on the playing field. Although the academic progress that has been made is encouraging, there is still much work to be done in bridging the achievement gap, and ensuring that African American student-athletes are receiving maximum benefit from their educational experience to prepare for a successful life and career after college. Not every athlete will be a Heisman Trophy winner, a first-round draft pick or a Hall of Fame player, but every student has the opportunity through their collegiate experience to prepare, equip and empower themselves for a meaningful and impactful future.”

Certainly this is not a bad sentiment with regards to these black students. But has Jackson really put this philosophy into practice? After all, if he truly desired excellence from black students in academia and thought they were capable of it, wouldn’t he reject a mindset of victimization and policies which give any kind of preference to blacks? Creating a victim culture and applying favoritism to any race implies that excellence is beyond their grasp or at least not achievable without the assistance from those of Jackson’s ilk and the policies that they favor.

Once again, the reason for the frequent achievement of excellence by blacks on the gridiron has nothing to do with any kind of race-based favoritism or victimhood. Rather, it is the perseverance and responsibility taken by these athletes which propels them to this status. It therefore can be said that blacks have been able to accomplish these feats by applying a very anti-Jackson philosophy to their approach. A similar path put forward on academics would certainly yield better results than the one that these types of black leaders have been peddling since they rose to prominence.

NCAA Forces Football and School to Go Together (Unfortunately)

Amidst the beginning of the 2017 college football season, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen made a statement about student athleticism that has shook up the world of collegiate athletics. In an interview with Bleacher Report, Rosen said that “football and school don’t go together, they just don’t. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they’re here because this is the path to the NFL. There’s no other way. Then there’s the other side that says to raise the SAT eligibility requirements. Ok, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have. You lose athletes and then the product on the field suffers.”

Rosen isn’t the first football player to make this point. Back in 2015, Seattle Seahawks’ three time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman spoke about the difficulty in balancing a life as both a college football player and full time student. But could there be a way out of this difficult situation? If so, what would it look like?

The concern that Rosen has over the time constraints of being an elite Division-I athlete and a student shouldn’t come as a surprise. College football brings in huge revenues for the school, the conference and the NCAA. As those revenues have continued to grow, less emphasis has been placed on academics for those who compete and star on the highest level. As a result, many football players choose an easy major with a light work load in order to stay eligible. Rosen’s major, economics, takes more time and effort than one which simply keeps you eligible to play a time consuming sport. So it would seem as if he has a first-hand experience as to the difficulties a student-athlete would encounter when dealing with the pressure of an intense academic schedule.

Rosen’s claim that there are players competing at the highest levels in college football who have no business being in college should also not come as a surprise either. Since putting a great team on the field takes priority over other concerns, elite schools in top conferences will often forgo sub-par academic performance in order to assemble a better squad. This is often why easy majors at these universities exist in the first place. It has also lead to a number of academic scandals involving top athletic programs.

The key statement in Rosen’s comment is that “there’s no other way.” This refers to the fact that playing football in college is the only real way to get noticed by the NFL. Despite college academics having nothing to do with playing a sport, top football players are forced to take on a full time class schedule and football schedule at the same time if they want to reach the professional level. Since a player must be removed from high school for three years before entering the NFL Draft, an athlete must find a way to stay eligible through several semesters. This is a significant difference from the NBA’s “one and done” rule where athletes leaving school after one year only have to stay eligible for a single semester before being drafted.

The solution to this problem is that the NFL needs to take a page out of Major League Baseball’s playbook. Create a minor league system that allows players to be drafted by an NFL team and develop their skills on that level before going pro. This way, players who do not desire a full time college schedule or those not able to undertake one would not have to. Doing this would certainly provide the “other way” that Rosen cited as not existing in the current system.

Sadly, the NCAA would not let this solution occur. Allowing another path to the NFL would likely cause many elite football players to choose against playing for a top school. Thus, the level of talent on the field would suffer. The NCAA is not about to let this happen. So for the sake of maintaining a certain level of play in college athletics, they will prevent a “minor league” system managed by the NFL that would threaten their significance. The revenue stream for college football can’t be threatened in any way. As a result, going to college must remain the only way for an outstanding football player to display the talent that he has. Whether that player has the academic ability or desire to be in college in the first place will not be a matter for concern.