Every Black Kid Should Strive to Be a Professional Athlete

By Mark D. Robinson, Ph.D
Updated: January 17, 2005

Part One

Vonetta Flowers

LONDON, ENGLAND — Without prejudging the meaning of this article, just take a minute and think, what IF every Black kid aspired to become a professional athlete? I have finally come to the conclusion that every Black youth should strive to do just that.

There are a number of scholars who have provided informative and concrete evidence on the Black athlete’s participation in sport. (Edwards, Sailes, Hunter, Harpalani, Andrews, Brooks Althouse, Tucker, Smith and Harrison, Harris). However, unlike these and many other scholars who study the Black athlete, I tend to view the statistics and research on Black male athletes in a different light. I consider myself to be of one of a few individuals who see the big picture concerning graduation rates, behavioral problems, and a complete understanding of the psychology of today’s Black athlete.

According to Sailes (1997), there is an over-representation of Black males in particular sports and an under-representation in other segments of American society. He provides the example of percentages of Black males competing in the NBA (77%), NFL (65%), MLB (15%), and MLS (16%) in comparison to the fact that fewer than 2% of doctors, lawyers, architects, college professors, or business executives are Black males. Again, I ask you to think, what if EVERY black kid aspired to become a professional athlete? Unfortunately, at the moment, professional sports is the largest (and may be the only) employment industry that really welcomes Black males and now Black females. Why not aspire to work in an industry that wants you?

What Really Is The Problem?

We must look at some of the findings of the NCAA. One report revealed that approximately 50% of African American athletes playing Division I football and basketball come from impoverished backgrounds (Salies, 1997). According to The Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University, a poor African American family is seven times more likely to encourage a male child into sports than is a white family. If a family cannot afford to send a child to college, which is the case for 50% of the athletes in Division I Basketball and football, what is the harm in pushing a young Black man towards college sports, since, traditionally, it has been marketed as a free education?

The fact that Black parents encourage their children to play sports is not the problem. Rather, the problem is that NCAA rules and regulations do not require institutions to graduate athletes. The NCAA’s (1998) annual six-year study reported that only 33% of Black male basketball players graduated and 42% of Black football players graduated at the division I level (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1999). Individually, basketball reported the lowest graduation rate in all divisions. This number tells me that 67% of Black male basketball players, in this study, who attended college did not receive proper academic advising. I find it puzzling and disheartening that, after five years of college attendance by an athlete, an academic institution can fail to educate so may of its student-athletes.

EBKGP Theory

The key areas that need to be addressed to fully understand the “Every Black Kid Go Pro” (EBKGP) theory are: 1) the psychology of the Black male athlete, 2) the quality and integrity of the academic advising and guidance he receives, and 3) the way forward, i.e., solutions for black male athletes who want to become professional athletes. This is not a theory developed in haste. It is a theory taken from two separate arenas. One is a look into the minds and hearts of thousands of Black athletes who have played college sports. The second is the research that has been conducted by those academics who actually study the Black athlete.

Psychologically, Black male athletes think that they would have a good chance of playing professional sports if they attend college for at least two years. Therefore, they do whatever is necessary, academically, in high school to gain entry into college. According to Lapchick (1984), the high visibility of African American athletes and the low visibility of other successful African Americans in other professional industries create this expectation and approach in our youngsters.

On the one hand, being a professional athlete is linked to social mobility, (Loy, 1972; Eisen and Turner, 1992; Haerle, 1975). Other research on the Black athlete in the area of upward mobility, however, questions the role of sports in social advancement (Leonard, 1997; Edwards, 1984; Curry and Jiobu, 1984). Here again, it may be not be the role of sports in the development of the student-athlete that should be called into question. Rather, the fault may more clearly lie with educational institutions, which, initially, are eager to admit talented Black athletes, and then fail to help them develop the skills and tools needed to venture, successfully, into the world of work.

Once in college, any learning difficulties should be spotted, and a program of improvement begun, within the first semester. In fact, if this were the case, the graduation rate would be much higher for Black males. Being away from home and the lack of discipline while in college tends to make Black male athletes think they are on vacation. Athletic practice, partying, women, and academics, too often in that order, make up the daily routine for many Black college athletes. This routine, lasting an average of three semesters, can make the athlete lose sight of the real reason he is attending college.

If the stakes for coaches and academic advisors were higher, perhaps things would change. One solution: Academic advisors and coaches could lose pay and, eventually, their jobs if the graduation rates for Black male athletes, under their care, did not jump dramatically. They are the individuals who are responsible for making sure athletes get tutors and the help necessary to not only pass their subjects, but to learn. Is this not why they are employed in the first place?

What would the results be if colleges and universities, and their academic advisors, graduated more black athletes? According to the NCAA, there are approximately one million high school football players and 500,000 high school basketball players in the United States (Schoemann, 1995). If all of the Black males in these groups were to attend college and graduate, I am sure that the fewer-than-2% of Black male professionals, cited earlier, would increase exponentially. This could create a powerful social domino effect in all sectors of employment, including college athletic advising.

Currently, academic advisors seem to work more as gatekeepers, and, thereby, end up preventing athletes from attaining later career success. But, that is only one of the problems. A second is that the number of Black athletic directors and academic advisors/counselors, on the collegiate level, is between slim and none. Before I continue, I must define Black in this context. Black is not only the color of a person’s skin, but reflects, also, the attitudes and beliefs they have toward helping African Americans advance and develop, academically, as well as socially. I am not suggesting, by any means, that White people don’t posses the ability, or have the willingness, to help young African Americans advance. However, 67% of the basketball players at the NCAA level didn’t seem to cross paths with the appropriate White or Black academic counselors/advisors. Black parents trust these very people with the lives of their children. Parents allow their kids to leave home to attend college in the hope that they will receive an education, as well as have the chance to sign a multi-million dollar contract with a professional team.

In fairness to those who work in athletic departments, they are only using the academic guidelines they were taught in graduate school. Most, if not all, graduate schools do not prepare students, Black or White, how to work with and counsel Black athletes. The only course that touches on diverse populations is Multicultural Counseling. A person who specializes in Multicultural Counseling is a “jack-of-all-trades and master of none”. It is, virtually, impossible for an individual to understand the psychological problems of all ethnic minorities and provide appropriate solutions to their problems after taking one class in the subject area.

The Way Forward Hopefully, by now you can see the point I have been trying to make. Let me say it simply.

Step One: Due to the high visibility of the number of Black professional athletes, Black kids want to become professional athletes, thus requiring an athletic/academic scholarship. The only way 50% of division I Black male basketball and football player get a shot at athletics and education is through the dream of becoming a professional.

Step Two: If academic advisors provided the necessary help black athletes need during a four or five-year period, the graduation rate would rise.

Step Three: Once graduation rates start rising, these athletes could be in a position to venture into other employment industries which would allow future athletes the opportunity to see, first hand, that sports participation can be used as a vehicle to a career in any professional field.

The Challenge Scholars Face Scholars who study the Black athlete need to understand that today’s Black athlete is smarter, faster, stronger and trickier than past athletes. It makes no sense to research a problem without attacking the real issues and providing concrete solutions. As far as I can see, none of the scholars who study the Black athlete seems to be concerned about the difficulty Black athletes have entering graduate school or obtaining a tenure-track position once they finish. They may fear that they’ll lose credibility concerning research on the Black athlete, or more importantly, job security, if they see these things and say them.

How many of the researchers mentioned in this article are advocating for graduate fellowships or postdoctoral fellowships for Black male athletes, in areas such as athletics, psychology, African American studies, or sports psychology? Maybe, one.

Therefore, I challenge all scholars who conduct research concerning the Black athlete to start advocating for access to graduate programs that specifically target Black male athletes. I also challenge these same scholars to find a different approach towards researching the Black athlete, instead of relying on the results of statistical data, which portrays today’s Black athlete as the new dumb jock!

“I cannot promise you a shot at the NBA. However, I can tell you that you will go to class — and we will exhaust every legal avenue to ensure you graduate on time.” Bob Knight, 1985

Part Two

Lebron James

LONDON, ENGLAND — What would the results be if colleges and universities, and their academic advisors, graduated more black athletes? According to the NCAA, there are approximately one million high school football players and 500,000 high school basketball players in the United States (Schoemann, 1995). If all of the Black males in these groups were to attend college and graduate, I am sure that the fewer-than-2% of Black male professionals, cited earlier, would increase exponentially. This could create a powerful social domino effect in all sectors of employment, including college athletic advising.

Currently, academic advisors seem to work more as gatekeepers, and, thereby, end up preventing athletes from attaining later career success. But, that is only one of the problems. A second is that the number of Black athletic directors and academic advisors/counselors, on the collegiate level, is between slim and none. Before I continue, I must define Black in this context. Black is not only the color of a person’s skin, but reflects, also, the attitudes and beliefs they have toward helping African Americans advance and develop, academically, as well as socially. I am not suggesting, by any means, that White people don’t posses the ability, or have the willingness, to help young African Americans advance.

However, 67% of the basketball players at the NCAA level didn’t seem to cross paths with the appropriate White or Black academic counselors/advisors. Black parents trust these very people with the lives of their children. Parents allow their kids to leave home to attend college in the hope that they will receive an education, as well as have the chance to sign a multi-million dollar contract with a professional team.

In fairness to those who work in athletic departments, they are only using the academic guidelines they were taught in graduate school. Most, if not all, graduate schools do not prepare students, Black or White, how to work with and counsel Black athletes. The only course that touches on diverse populations is Multicultural Counseling. A person who specializes in Multicultural Counseling is a “jack-of-all-trades and master of none”. It is, virtually, impossible for an individual to understand the psychological problems of all ethnic minorities and provide appropriate solutions to their problems after taking one class in the subject area.

The Way Forward Hopefully, by now you can see the point I have been trying to make. Let me say it simply.

Step One: Due to the high visibility of the number of Black professional athletes, Black kids want to become professional athletes, thus requiring an athletic/academic scholarship. The only way 50% of division I Black male basketball and football player get a shot at athletics and education is through the dream of becoming a professional.

Step Two: If academic advisors provided the necessary help black athletes need during a four or five-year period, the graduation rate would rise.

Step Three: Once graduation rates start rising, these athletes could be in a position to venture into other employment industries which would allow future athletes the opportunity to see, first hand, that sports participation can be used as a vehicle to a career in any professional field.

The Challenge Scholars Face Scholars who study the Black athlete need to understand that today’s Black athlete is smarter, faster, stronger and trickier than past athletes. It makes no sense to research a problem without attacking the real issues and providing concrete solutions. As far as I can see, none of the scholars who study the Black athlete seems to be concerned about the difficulty Black athletes have entering graduate school or obtaining a tenure-track position once they finish. They may fear that they’ll lose credibility concerning research on the Black athlete, or more importantly, job security, if they see these things and say them.

How many of the researchers mentioned in this article are advocating for graduate fellowships or postdoctoral fellowships for Black male athletes, in areas such as athletics, psychology, African American studies, or sports psychology? Maybe, one.

Therefore, I challenge all scholars who conduct research concerning the Black athlete to start advocating for access to graduate programs that specifically target Black male athletes. I also challenge these same scholars to find a different approach towards researching the Black athlete, instead of relying on the results of statistical data, which portrays today’s Black athlete as the new dumb jock!

“I cannot promise you a shot at the NBA. However, I can tell you that you will go to class — and we will exhaust every legal avenue to ensure you graduate on time.” Bob Knight, 1985