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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Triple Tragedy of The Black Student Athlete


Black people in the US have achieved a lot in athletics since being allowed into main stream sport in the late 1940s. However, the overwhelming obsession with selected sports by the people of color has been raising fundamental sociological as well as academic issues. This paper therefore discusses the triple tragedy that Black Student Athletes unknowingly face when they exclusively pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes at the expense of a college education. This tragedy is due to the racist ideology of sport that defines and channels blacks into “physical and athletic” endeavors and it is recommended that time is ripe to chart a new course for the black student athlete and the black community as a whole.


Black people in the US have achieved a lot in athletics since being allowed into main stream sport in the late 1940s. However, the overwhelming obsession with selected sports by the people of color has been raising fundamental sociological as well as academic issues (Coakley, 2009; Edwards, 2000; Harrison, 2000). According to Edwards (2000), the single minded pursuit of athletic success by black athletes is counterproductive. He argues that at the root of the problems of the black community is the fact that black families elect to push their children toward sports career aspirations, often to the neglect and detriment of other important areas of personal and cultural development. Other researchers attribute channeling of blacks into sport to the encouragement by teachers, coaches and friends/peers. Many black students are simply viewed by those from the Caucasian background as standing a better chance to succeed in sport than in other professional careers (Harris, 1994). However, the overwhelming inclination towards athletics is attributed to three factors:

a. A long-standing racist and ill-informed stereotype that blacks are genetically or physically more athletic than whites and that the former are intellectually deficient compared to the latter (Edwards, 2000; Coakley, 2009; Harrison, 2000; Harrison et al., 2002; Sailes, 1993). This stereotype projects a black person as athletic, skillful, fast yet intellectually deficient. As much as this stereotype is perpetuated by the dominant white population, it has been so widespread as to capture the imagination of the black society thereby propagate it to their disadvantage. It is unfortunately a career riddled with less resistance for the blacks as they experience social acceptance in predominantly white settings unlike other professional careers. The pursuit of sport is made a priority when individuals of color have an encounter with racial discrimination in their day-to-day lives and therefore find alternative immersion in sports dominated by fellow blacks (Harris, 1994; Harrison et al., 2002; Sailes, 1993). According to Harrison et al., (2002) sport performance is the most salient of the few positive stereotypes for black people. Thus from very early in life, it is an easier road to travel.

b. Media propaganda portraying sports as a broadly accessible route to black social and economic mobility. The mass media is pivotal in transmitting messages and influencing the public. Thus the publicity given to black athletes who have achieved via football, basketball, track and field, boxing, among others convinces the young blacks that sport pays well. The media bombardment characterized by high earning black athletes over 24 hours a day tends to promote sports dreams and downplays educational and other scholar related opportunities (Edwards, 2000; Harrison, 2000); and

c. A lack of comparably visible, high prestige black role models beyond the sports arena involving football, basketball and track and field. This relates to the question of stereotypes and identity formation. Indeed black youth that are immersed in black cultural attitudes may consider football, basketball and track and field as appropriate for their participation. They however, avoid other sporting activities or even career preparing endeavors that are deemed inappropriate by fellow blacks. It is no wonder that black athletes may develop attitudes, skills, interests and competencies in only a narrow range of activities to the total exclusion of other endeavors (Edwards, 2000; Harris, 1994).

This combination of influences has inculcated into the mind of black youth “a single-minded pursuit of sports fame and fortune that spawned an institutionalized triple tragedy in black society” (Edwards, 2000:9). The ingredients of the triple tragedy include:

  1. The tragedy of thousands upon thousands of black youths in obsessive pursuit of sports goals that the overwhelming majority of them will not attain;
  2. Personal and cultural underdevelopment that afflicts so many successful and unsuccessful black sports aspirants; and
  3. The tragedy of cultural and institutional underdevelopment throughout black society at least in some parts as a consequence of the drain in talent potential toward sports and away from other vital areas of occupational and career emphasis such as medicine, law, economics, politics, education and technical fields.

As a black male child grows, he is systematically channeled towards the world of athleticism as evidenced by the overwhelming presence in sport, music and other entertainment based occupations. The one way cultural integration through sports/entertainment, the migration of black middle class out of the ghetto, and the devaluing of the black mind and intellectualism in general has led to a construct and racial identity of despair and hopelessness among the black community (Edwards, 2000; Harrison, 2000). According to Harrison (2000: 36), the social circumstances of black males affirm the volatile nexus of education, race and sports. The higher education system thrives on athletics that is dependent on black athletes. Thus systematically, the talents of black males in athletics continue to contribute to the high success of revenue producing sports programs (football and basketball) both at college and at professional levels. This sets up in American higher education institutions what Edwards (2000) calls the sport “participation system” that easily reflects societal structures with a legacy of racism and discrimination”.

College Sports Labor

The utilization of black athletic talent in institutions of learning when the student athletes are not getting a deserving education reveals a hypocrisy that continues to draw criticisms (Foster, 2005; Sack and Staurowsky, 1998; Singer, 2005). The NCAA data for 2008 show that Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for Division 1 players has reached 78 percent (Sander, 2008) for the 1998 to 2001 academic years. The same GSR improved to 79 percent for student athletes who joined College in 2001. The GSR however varies widely by sport, race and gender (Fountain & Finley, 2009). Basketball men graduated at 62 percent; Football 66 percent; Lacrosse 88 percent; Water polo 87 percent; Fencing and Gymnastics each 86 percent. On average, Women athletes graduated 87 percent compared to men’s 71 percent. For Women’s sports, Ski graduated 96 percent, Gymnastics 95 percent; Field hockey and Lacrosse 94 percent for each; Basketball 82 percent; and Bowling came last at 68 percent (Sander, 2008). While a March 2009 report for the men’s and women’s basketball teams in the national tournament revealed that a substantial gap persists between the graduation rates of white and black athletes: Fifty-eight percent of the teams graduated 70 percent or more of their white players, compared with 32 percent of their black ones (Sander, 2009). This disparity reveals the deep challenges as well as the futility of the majority of them attempting to use sport as an elevator in their social lives via college (Singer, 2005).

It is obvious that sports where black athletes are heavily represented such as basketball and football are at the bottom of the graduation rates. Yet the revenue from these two is what subsidizes the other sports that are graduating high rates of students and are predominantly White. According to Asim (2006:48), while the “kids are slam dunking and flying into the end zone, they are not learning much as most colleges have confused commerce with education”. Additionally, the sheer involvement and obsessive pursuit for athletic excellence on the part of black student athletes compromise their physical and mental application towards academic achievement that is critical to successful matriculation in college.

Authors such as Sack and Staurowsky (1998) have labeled the athletics talent as black athletic labor. Indeed the authors argue that the dominant role of blacks in collegiate sport would seem, superficially, to provide evidence that sport is an elevator to success. However, closer examination shows that universities are more concerned with exploiting the athletic talent of the black community than with nurturing its academic potential. The affirmative action programs in place for regular minority students compared to student athletes also reveal the fact that colleges are more concerned with producing winning sports teams than seeking to produce graduates in education, law, medicine, economics, business and engineering particularly from amongst people of color (Sack and Staurowsky, 1998; Singer, 2005).

The tragedy that many black students face is the fact that they are convinced that it is only in athletics that they can succeed in life. They are so blinded by the racial ideology that it is hard to think of anything else when one has fundamentals of playing sport at college level. This is the expectation of the masterminds of racial ideology which has largely succeeded to rob black boys and girls off viable dreams outside of sports. Research and athlete testimonies suggest that many young blacks especially men, grow believing that the black body is superior when it comes to physical abilities in certain sports (Coakley, 2009; Edwards, 2000; Harrison, 2000; Harrison et al., 2002; Lomax, 2000). This misguided belief inspires some black people to believe it is in their biological and cultural destiny to excel in playing certain sports (Coakley, 2009). And the fact that there are no visible role models in fields other than athletics inspires young black people to feel that their chances of gaining respect and material success are dismal in any realm other than a few sports (Coakley, 2009; Edwards, 2000; Harris, 1994; Harrison, 2000; Harrison et al., 2002; Singer, 2005). Thus a high proportion of black students join college and if they are on an athletics scholarship, work extremely hard to excel on the team. Their goals basically revolve around professional sport.

Hyatt (2003) cites a study by the Center for the Study of Athletics which collected data from forty-two Division 1 colleges. The data revealed that 44% of African Americans and 20% non-African American football players expected to become professional athletes whereas in basketball, the figures were 7% of the African American and 3% of the non-African American. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of student athletes in college end up being drafted into Professional Leagues. For instance, NFL and NBA, two of the leading professional leagues in the USA, recruit only 2.3% and 2.5% respectively (Bolig, 1994; Le Crom et al., 2009). These figures also fluctuate from year to year as in 2003-2004, the numbers were below the averages with 0.8% of college basketball players, 1.3% of college football players and 6.9% of college baseball players drafted (Le Crom et al., 2009). Thus the college entry goal for a student athlete is critical in shaping his or her academic priorities viz. - a –viz. the athletic responsibilities. But even those focused on professional careers should be exposed to a positive learning atmosphere that characterizes a college education. College equips students with life long skills whether they stay on to get a degree or they leave early to venture into professional sport. Those who go to professional sport should depart with core educationally derived values, skills and knowledge. The sports administrators and managers in college should focus on equipping the student athletes especially those of color given that their background may not have prepared them for life away from athletics.

One of the biggest criticisms of college sport is the fact that it is a replica of the plantation system. Harrison (2000) contends that the modern academe is characterized by the bizarre phenomenon of the majority of the big sport athletes being drawn from the African American ethnic group. They are recruited; it seems, to provide sporting labor to the detriment of their academic aspirations as well as general underdevelopment of the black community as a whole. For professional nurturing to occur, black student athletes need guidance right from the time they step on campus with regard to choice of subject majors and their future careers including those focused on professional careers in athletics. College should equip students with life long skills whether they stay on to get a degree or they leave early to venture into professional sport. Those who go to professional sport should have what it takes to carry themselves with integrity, discipline and responsibility. Unfortunately, the tragic lifestyles of some retired black athletes reflects the need for a serious investment in sound education while in college so that they can put to good use the resources that they generate through their playing careers at professional levels.

Given the challenges that black student athletes face on campus and their low graduation rates, it is not surprising that there is a pervasive impression that black athletes are dumb jocks and that they are intellectually inferior (Sailes, 1993). The racial stereotyping of black student athletes is reflected in the view that blacks are not academically prepared to be in college as the average student received lower grades than white athletes, and was not as intelligent as white athletes (Sailes, 1993:95). These negative perceptions have been questioned by various authors (Coakley, 2009; Sailes, 1993). The existence of such stereotypes regarding black student athletes undermines any efforts to promote social and academic interaction in institutions which is critical for effective learning especially for a minority group. The presence of such stereotypical views among white students especially males could be due to lack of prior inter cultural experiences.

One of the contributions of the black student athletes is the enhancement of the entertainment value of college sport. It has been acknowledged that athletes of color have a unique yet attractive playing style as opposed to rigid and mechanical approach by white players and coaches (Sailes, 1993; Yetman and Berghorn, 1993). But even as black players have been recruited enthusiastically, the head coaching positions and athletics administrative roles have not been made widely accessible to blacks (Yetman and Berghorn, 1993). According to Yetman and Berghorn, (1993), blacks have not gained equal opportunity academically compared to intercollegiate basketball where black players and coaches are well represented. The authors also voiced pessimism as to whether superior representation on the basketball teams would translate to general employment opportunities outside college campus. This is in line with Adler and Adler’s (1991) argument that whites were much more likely than blacks to be able to capitalize on their athletic experiences. According to Yetman and Berghorn, (1993) “Blacks are treated more equitably in both the military and sports than in other institutions, but once they leave these two distinctive environments, their previous status is unlikely to have a substantial impact on their future careers” (312).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Thus the black athlete continues to experience racially motivated stereotyping which works to maintain the status quo. The onus is on the leadership in institutions of learning, sporting establishments and teams to work towards promoting a level playing field for all without discrimination along skin color or gender. The ultimate challenge for American society and its institutions is to facilitate and impact the youth in such a way that voids the stereotypical beliefs of self and others that now pervade society. There is need to focus on promoting social, political, cultural and economic equity by affording blacks opportunities in head coaching positions, management, ownership, corporate executives, politics and the entire professional landscape. That way, black kids will see opportunities beyond and outside the narrow choice of football, basketball and track and field.

Thus the enormous odds against one making it to the professional leagues makes it unrealistic for black athletes to solely focus on it as a career. Yet the tragedy as pointed out by Harris (1994) is that often black males who spent years developing their athletic skills have little to rely on in terms of skills for non sport careers. Although Edwards (2000) and Harrison (2000) put blame on parents pushing the kids, according to Harris (1994) the unwitting push is from coaches, friends, teachers and general society. This is the tragedy of the racist ideology of sport that defines and channels blacks into “physical and athletic” endeavors and it is time to chart a new course for the black student athlete and the black community as a whole.


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