Race and college athletics

Black football and basketball players in big sports schools have a substantially lower graduation rate than do other student groups. Why is that?

Several explanations come immediately to the mind of anyone who follows college football or basketball closely. First, football and basketball players at big time programs are admitted to college with test scores far lower than other student groups. These test scores “predict” substantially less academic success for football and basketball players. No one should be surprised when the prediction comes true.

Second, many football and basketball players expect job opportunities that in no way depend on academic success or graduation from college. Professional football and basketball teams don’t judge prospects based on these factors. Ordinary employers who have good jobs to offer frequently do.

Third, some football and basketball players in big time programs receive, in effect, excellent job offers before they graduate. Some can leave college early and expect to be drafted by the NFL or the NBA. Alternatively, in the case of basketball players, some can expect to make money playing abroad or in a developmental league. Ordinary college students lack these kinds of pre-graduation opportunities.

However, Shaun Harper, of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, has a different explanation for the low graduation rates: the “disenfranchisement” of black athletes who play football and basketball at big-time college programs. I think he means some form of racism.

Harper conducted a study that found:

55.2% of Black male student-athletes graduated within six years, compared to 69.3% of student-athletes overall, 60.1 percent of Black undergraduate men overall, and 76.3% of undergraduate students overall.

But for the reasons I pointed to earlier, black football and basketball players in big-time college programs are not similarly situated to other college athletes, to other black undergraduate men (though many of them benefit from racial preferences), or to other undergraduates. Thus, Harper offers no basis for inferring “disenfranchisement” or any form of racism on campus.

Harper’s findings were featured at a March 20 meeting of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Faculty Athletics Committee. Sally Watkins, writing for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, points out that at this university the average SAT score for entering class of football players in 2015 was 993. The average SAT score for the entering class as a whole was 1300.

An apples-to-apples study of whether black college athletes suffer “disfranchisement” would compare graduation rates for white and black athletes on the same teams or comparable ones. But even then, one would have to control for test scores, quality of preparatory education, and opportunities to play pro sports. Only then might one infer anything nefarious on the part of the schools in question.

Writing for NRO, George Leef concludes that “the problem is not that universities are intimidating or preventing black athletes from succeeding in college [Note: Why would they?] — it is that university officials compromise academic integrity for the sake of gaining star players.”

Parts of Harper’s report can be read as criticizing university officials on the similar grounds. He seems disturbed, at any rate, that blacks comprise such a high percentage of the football and basketball players at elite programs.

But would it serve the interests of black males if their representation on big-time college football and basketball teams diminished? Not while these teams remain a major source of professional football and basketball talent.

And even in a world where colleges didn’t feed pro sports teams to such a degree, it’s not clear, given that about half of black male athletes in big-time programs do graduate from college, that their disproportionate representation in such programs would be harmful to blacks. The harm, self-inflicted, is to academic life at the universities in question.

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