Sending Out Mixed Messages??

By Mike Knobler
Updated: January 4, 2009

ATLANTA— Paul Hewitt cries foul when he hears people criticize the academic performance of college athletes in comparison with other college students.

The groups, he points out, are very different.

“Yes, those [test score and graduation rate] numbers are going to be lower, but the group [of potential major college athletes] that we’re picking from has a lower number historically,” said Hewitt, Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball coach and president of Black Coaches and Administrators, which advocates for ethnic minorities in sports.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution study of athletes’ admissions qualifications partly confirmed Hewitt’s point. On average, black and white students arrive on campus with much different academic backgrounds and graduate at much different rates. Athletes’ experiences reflect those differences, and those differences affect the statistics for athletes as a whole.

Blacks are far better represented on the playing field than in the classroom. Only about 1.8 percent of white students were scholarship athletes, compared with 6.4 percent of black students. Some schools’ athlete-student demographic differences were huge. For example, about a third of the black students in Colorado’s 2002 freshman class were scholarship athletes.

The SAT has been criticized as racially biased, and black students as a whole enter college with lower scores than white students. The difference in the average scores for white and black students was 149 points at public universities in the six Bowl Championship Series conferences, an AJC study showed. That explains part of the average 124-point gap between an athlete’s SAT score and the score for a typical student on his or her campus.

But that 124-point gap is not solely a product of the racial differences between the athlete and non-athlete populations. Even when you take race into account, athletes score lower than non-athletes.

Black athletes’ average SAT score was 102 points lower than the average for black students overall. White athletes’ average SAT score was 88 points lower than the average for white students overall. One expert says those numbers suggest schools are motivated by money, not affirmative action.

If universities were motivated by affirmative action, they would enroll black students whose qualifications give them a better chance to succeed in class, rather than athletes whose skills help the school sell football and basketball tickets, said Allen Sack, director of the University of New Haven’s Institute for Sport Management and a former University of Notre Dame football player.

“The black athletes are far more represented in football and basketball, the two sports that produce the most revenue,” Sack said. “Is there exploitation going on? I would suggest there is.”

Sack said universities might be exploiting those athletes who enter with inferior academic credentials, even if athletes as a whole graduate at a higher rate than non-athletes. “The athletes should all be graduating at a higher rate than the student body because they have the incredible advantage of having tuition, room and board paid for them,” Sack said.

The most recent Division I data showed black athletes in men’s sports outperforming black men’s graduation rate overall, 48 percent to 38 percent, and black athletes in women’s sports outperforming black women’s graduation rate overall, 66 percent to 50 percent.

For white women, the graduation rates were 74 percent for athletes, 67 percent overall. The only large group in which athletes underperformed: White men, with athletes graduating at 61 percent and students as a whole at 62 percent.

Seen that way, Hewitt said, it’s the universities, not the coaches and the athletics departments, that are failing minority students. “The easiest thing to do is to pull the numbers and say these black kids who are playing are not performing,” Hewitt said. “We as coaches, we take the blow for it while the presidents go on.”