HomeSportsWhat SCOTUS's affirmative action means for the Black athlete

What SCOTUS’s affirmative action means for the Black athlete

Eleven UCLA students, all Black males, stood 10 years ago before a campus building that housed programs geared toward diversity. They stared into a video camera and questioned whether their would-be alma mater was truly committed to the ideal of inclusiveness.

“When we have more national championships than we do Black male freshmen,” organizer Sy Stokes, a junior then, declared in a video that went viral, “it’s evident that our only purpose here is to improve your winning percentage. So now Black high school kids can care less about grades, just as long as the number on the back of their jersey doesn’t fade.”

Stokes, who went on to earn a PhD and now directs research at a nonprofit think tank on equity in the workplace, pointed out that 65 percent of Black male students at UCLA then were athletes.

There long has been a dangerous fairy tale created and propagated by the colonial settler class that disfigured this continent they landed on through, among other things, enslaving others. That narrative, sadly, was embraced by the Black bodies those enslavers employed violence to control. It said that the best way, if not the only way, for Black males to escape bondage was through athletic performance. They dangled the opportunity for those they enslaved to purchase their freedom if they could, for example, ride a horse to victory or be the last one standing in a bare-knuckle brawl.

The UCLA protest 10 years ago reminded that this remains largely true.

So with Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling that colleges and universities must abandon the consideration of race when it comes to admission, the devaluation of Black males on the college campus was upheld — unless they are fodder for the college sports industrial complex fueled by the football and basketball teams for which they are disproportionately a part.

And the dangerous fairy tale embraced by Black families and ballyhooed by those of us in media that sport is the best way for their sons, in particular, to succeed was given more credence. You know the story: If not for basketball or football or some other sport with the promise of a pot of gold, this Black kid would be slinging drugs, sticking up people, incarcerated or dead.

That is another pernicious development from Thursday’s decision. It burst the other dream bubble for Black boys. Instead, it’s ball — or bust.

We saw it celebrated in last week’s NBA draft after the 20-year-old Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, were picked fourth by the Houston Rockets and fifth by the Detroit Pistons, respectively, in the first round. They were raised (I use that word very purposely) to be basketball players. Their story is that, at 9 years old, with their parents, they created a vision board with handwritten goals to “become the greatest NBA player of all time … become a multibillionaire … become 6 feet 9 inch.”

The Thompson twins have only grown to 6-7. They bypassed college. They opted for a new professional minor league rather than produce wealth for some college that would keep the bulk of their bounty. They’ll shortly sign contracts that will bring them and their family upward of $45 million over the next three years.

They, of course, are the exception. Any other Black kids, or kids of any hue, have a much better chance cashing in from focusing as rigorously on mind exercises than on physical. It probably won’t be for the tens of millions a professional sports career can reap, but it can be a fine and better living nonetheless.

But the Supreme Court just decided after 45 years that for kids of color their athletic prowess will continue to be most valued when it comes to getting into college. This comes amid data that college enrollment of Black men already lags most other groups and is even in decline. And as Shaun Harper, the founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, has pointed out in studies over the past decade, there is quite a divergence between the percentage of Black male college students and that of Black male college athletes. He pointed out in the 2018 edition of his study Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in Division I College Sports: “Black men were 2.4% of undergraduate students enrolled at the 65 universities, but comprised 55% of football teams and 56% of men’s basketball teams on those campuses.”

As I’ve noted before about the relatively few Black men enrolled on college campuses: They are there predominantly as part of the revenue-generating athletic class and not part of the learning class that college is ostensibly all about.

Black men playing sports in college are well aware of how so many others regard them. Don McPherson, a Black quarterback at Syracuse in the 1980s, told me how he used to walk around campus with the New York Times tucked under his arm. He didn’t want others to think of him as just worthy of being at the school because of what he could accomplish on a football field.

There have been occasions when Black athletes have been applauded for their minds. Myron Rolle, a star defensive back for three seasons at Florida State, was named a finalist in 2008 for the Rhodes Scholarship. He was scheduled to be interviewed in Birmingham, Ala., by the award’s committee the night his Seminoles played at Maryland. He made his interview, and the never-gracious NCAA — unless it senses something may be in its better interest — allowed Rolle to take a charter plane to College Park to play in the game already underway. Watching Rolle, now in neurosurgery residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, hustle into the stadium and onto the field was the highlight of the game.

But what the Supreme Court just decided was a low point. A Myron Rolle of tomorrow who is not an outstanding athlete may be overlooked — or may be discouraged in the classroom well before, sensing he’s not welcome in higher education.

We’ll all be worse for that.

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