The underrepresentation and relative academic underperformance of black men in higher education are matters of increasing concern to campus leaders and policy makers. Yet often lost in the shuffle — except when they are explicitly reminded of it — is the fact that there is one place where black men are most decidedly not underrepresented on many campuses: on their sports teams, particularly the most visible ones of football and men’s basketball.
A study being released today aims very much to drive that point home, since many college officials seem inclined not to notice, says Shaun R. Harper, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and lead author of the study, “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports.”
“We hear over and over again that colleges and universities just cannot find qualified, college-ready black men to come to their institutions,” says Harper. “But it seems that they can find them when they want the black men to generate revenue for them.”
The study by Harper and his co-authors, Collin D. Williams Jr. and Horatio W. Blackman, research assistants at the Penn center, has two main goals. First, it explores the extent to which black men are represented in athletics and among all students at the universities that play sports at the highest level of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the six conferences that make up the Bowl Championship Series), highlighting those with the biggest gaps in representation (seen in the table at bottom). Over all, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students at the 76 institutions, but 57.1 percent of football team members and 64.3 percent of male basketball players.
The study in no way seeks to suggest that there are too many black athletes, Harper says. But at colleges where many of the black students on campus are athletes (a 2008 article in Inside Higher Ed, for instance, identified dozens of institutions in Division I where a third of the black undergraduate men on campus were athletes, and some where more than half were), “black men who are not student-athletes, because they are so few in number, end up suffering from the stereotypes that attach to athletes,” Harper says. “It’s not uncommon for a black man to get congratulated for a football victory while walking across campus on a Monday morning, despite the fact that he’s 5-foot-6 and skinny.”