Why race is critical to solving elite athlete education issues

April 16, 2018

By Collin D. Williams Jr.

Panelists participate in “For the Win: Innovative Approaches to Athlete Education” on Friday, March 16, in Washington, D.C., hosted by Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute. From left are Martin Carlsson-Wall, associate professor at Sweden’s Stockholm School of Economics; Arthur McAfee, senior vice president of NFL player engagement; Molly Ott, assistant professor of educational leadership and innovation at ASU’s Teacher’s College; Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics; and Collin D. Williams Jr., regional director of leadership & education programs with RISE. Moderator for the panel was Ken Shropshire, institute CEO, Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport and RISE Board of Directors member.

Race must be an integral part of the conversation when identifying solutions for elite athletes struggling to transition to careers and lives away from sports after not having enough time to get a quality education.

This approach was underscored Friday, March 16, when the Arizona State University Global Sport Institute hosted a panel, “For the Win: Innovative Approaches to Athlete Education,” and roundtable on best practices with researchers, professionals and other subject area experts.

As captured in a Diverse Issues in Higher Education piece about the event, race was among the day’s hot topics. A University of South Carolina graduate student posed the question guiding this blog post: Why, in a broad conversation about athlete education and transition issues, focus on black men on Division I revenue-generating college sports teams? The answer, as I explained, is twofold. First, while student-athletes aren’t struggling overall, many elite players are. Second, and more importantly, solving challenges facing black men, the most vulnerable and populous demographic among them, can help improve outcomes for all.

Contrary to the many academic scandals and persistent “dumb jock” stereotypes, student-athletes are among the highest-performing undergraduates. Across all three NCAA divisions not only do they graduate at higher rates than their non-sport peers, they also experience better transition outcomes. The report Understanding Life Outcomes of Former NCAA Student-Athletes found former athletes are as likely as their non-sport peers to be thriving financially. They are more likely to be thriving in purpose, social, community and physical well-being. Thus, the problematic student-athlete education and transition issues aren’t widespread but heavily concentrated at elite levels of competition.

Collin D. Williams Jr.

Within college sports, Power Five conference schools are the most competitive. Every NCAA Division I football champion since 1989 and each Division I men’s basketball championship team since 1991 (except the University of Connecticut and Villanova University) has come from the 65 institutions comprising the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference. Since the launch of the College Football Playoff in 2014, only teams from these five conferences have competed. Still, the question remains, what does this have to do with race?

The report Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports by Shaun R. Harper made racial realities in the Power Five conferences transparent. Though they were only 2.4% of the undergraduate students enrolled at the 65 universities, black men comprised 55% of football teams and 56% of men’s basketball teams.

On those same campuses, while 76.3% of undergraduate students overall, 69.3% of student-athletes overall and 60.1% of black undergraduate men overall graduated within six years, only 55.2% of black male student-athletes did.

Recognizing the recurrent problems of athletic overrepresentation and academic underperformance as racialized, Harper – a diversity in college scholar and director of USC Race & Equity Center – recommends a data-driven, multidimensional response from a variety of stakeholders.

In the solution-oriented roundtable following the panel, race again emerged as prominent topic.

During the roundtable, participants listed barriers to athlete education, placed them into themes in small groups and collectively brainstormed solutions as one large group. With stakeholders deeply knowledgeable of the issues within their particular contexts (college-revenue and nonrevenue, professional, retired, international, etc.), the strategizing was multidimensional.

Consider the following paraphrased exchange:

  • Participant one – If the major issue is time, why don’t we just extend the scholarship timeline?
  • Participant two – That solves for time, but what about the stereotypes that elite athletes, especially black ones, face? How are we accounting for their identity development in unfamiliar campus environments?
  • Participant three – Very interesting. What about in an international context, where the transition and identity issues are very similar but college is nonexistent?
  • Moderator – Excellent points. Now ask yourselves this: What approach, if any, captures all these groups?

Above, participants gave voice to athlete populations not often represented at the decision-making table. To ensure no demographic was left behind, much of the time was spent constructively critiquing proposed approaches. Though we didn’t arrive at a single cure-all solution over the course of a few hours, there were a couple notable takeaways.

One was the paramount importance of athletes developing identities outside of sports. Elite athletes, regardless of other background characteristics (race, geography, socioeconomic status, etc.), become problematically consumed in a singular sport identity. These adversely affect how they view themselves and, ultimately, embrace and perform in other academic and career roles. Any approach must in turn take into account these identity-related challenges.

Second, race is one of the most salient aspects of identity, particularly in America, where college is the primary pathway to a professional sports career. Accordingly, leaving race out of the conversation isn’t an option.

As we strive to improve outcomes for all athletes, we must remain attentive to those who struggle most. In The Miseducation of the Student-Athlete: How to Fix College Sports, a roadmap to increase the likelihood all student-athletes succeed both on and off the field, Ken Shropshire and I open the book with a preface by Harper that puts identity and race in the forefront. To address the issues in Division I sports, we make clear the unique and specific experiences of the largest and most vulnerable population among them, black men.

We can’t afford to be colorblind when it comes to equity in college sports, or frankly, other parts of society. Race must be a primary consideration as we conduct research into existing issues, as well as when we seek to identify solutions to them.

Collin D. Williams Jr. is a regional director of leadership & education programs with RISE. His research exploring elite student-athletes’ undergraduate experiences and post-college outcomes was published in The Miseducation of the Student-Athlete: How to Fix College Sports. The former ESPN, NBA and NFL employee earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and Africana studies and his doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. Read more about Williams on the RISE website or connect with him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/collindevon.