Black Student-Athletes: Improving Their Collegiate Experience

Peter D. Barbalias

The crowd cheers as the final seconds tick off the game clock, and school administrators dream of the revenue generated by a national championship. When the celebration is over, many departing senior Black1 student-athletes place all their future career ambitions in professional sports. A question we must address is whether the academy is doing Black student-athletes a disservice by luring them to campuses where the system strictly nurtures their athletic contributions and disregards their academic and social development. Student affairs professionals could increase their role in improving the college experience of Black student-athletes.


In the relentless wake of reports indicating forty to fifty hour weeks devoted to athletics, grade adjustments and lowered academic preparation standards, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recently introduced stricter regulations, reduced playing schedules and elevated eligibility standards to silence critics. Unfortunately, the climate surrounding college athletics continues to spawn practices which impede the development of the "student" role of Black student-athletes. The story of one Black student-athlete illustrates the tragic consequences of ignoring the academic mission of higher education. Fred Buttler dreamed of playing professional football. When his eligibility expired at California-Los Angeles State, the school's interest in him as a student waned as did the academic support of the faculty. "Suddenly the C+ former football star . . . flunked out of LA State" . . . and "in the end, Fred Buttler had no degree, no offers to play football, and no skills to use for gainful employment" (Lapchick, 1984, p. 202). Fans enviously watch college athletic events on television or in person, often wishing they could be in the shoes of student-athletes. These events do not reveal the reality beyond the game-saving interception, the last minute three pointer, or the grand slam to clear the bases.

The substantial revenue available to institutions of higher education, through participation in college athletics, creates intense pressure for coaches to win. The minimal concern of many athletic programs is to preserve an athlete's eligibility because a program's success hinges on the supporting cast of stellar athletes. The emphasis on generating revenue suggests that it is the economic purpose of these student-athletes which is of primary concern to an institution. "While bowl-game revenues have nearly doubled . . . to $88 million. 4 million this year . . . the NCAA's Division I men's basketball tournament . . . brought in roughly $153 million" (Blum, 1994, p. 61). The escalating attendance at college sporting events, particularly football and basketball games, reveals the importance of athletes in the financial stability of colleges and universities. It is time to consider whether the academy is doing Black student-athletes a disservice by luring them to campuses where their athletic contributions are more of a concern than their development.

The Erosion of the Scholar-Athlete

Predominantly White colleges and universities welcomed Black athletes to their campuses toward the latter half of the nineteenth century and "these men . . . approached sport with utmost seriousness but, unlike many college athletes of the future, always considered sport less important than academic success and educational achievements" (Wiggins, 1991, p. 105). Several events in society and sports influenced a dramatic shift towards desegregation in college athletics. During the 1920s activism among Black students escalated despite the fear of losing their scholarships and ultimately the rare opportunity to experience a college education. Significant increases in enrollment in northern institutions provided the impetus to cease discrimination and segregation in the academy. In addition, the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 denounced the separate but equal philosophy in public schools. The 1960s showed an enthusiasm for sport as Black athletes began to prosper in football, basketball and track. All these circumstances "paved the way for more black athletes to participate in sport on a wider range of college campuses" (Wiggins, p. 171). Despite the increasing populations of Black student-athletes in higher education, troubling issues of academic negligence and social isolation began to surface in the academy as societal discrimination limited their integration into campus life outside of athletics.

Prior to stricter regulations in the late 1980s, many institutions of higher education lowered entrance requirements for student-athletes to maintain a rich, talented athlete pool from which to draw (Wiggins, 1991). This practice surfaced during the late 1800s, even though college athletic administrators historically demanded an equitable balance between the student and the athlete (Wiggins). For some time, athletics sacrificed the student for the athlete, which yielded rather damaging and horrific consequences. Despite their eagerness to pursue a college education, many Black student-athletes began to arrive unprepared (academically) to undertake the rigors of academics while maintaining an academic focus (Wiggins). The failure of colleges and universities to accommodate such students compounds the dilemma of enrolling students under relaxed entrance requirements. The sacrifice of the "student" in student-athlete is unjust in that "those who are eventually awarded collegiate athletic scholarships . . . as many as 65 to 75 percent [sic] may never graduate from college" (Edwards, 1983, p. 39). Recent studies indicate that only 1 out of 37,500 males and 1 out of 12,625,000 females ever don a professional uniform. Those athletes who find a niche in professional athletics enjoy an average career of a mere five years (Miracle, Jr., & Rees, 1994).

The exploitation of Black athletes is not a new concept in the realm of collegiate athletics. "Universities and athletic departments have gained huge gate receipts, television revenues, national visibility, donors to university programs and more, as a result of the performances of gifted basketball and football players" (Edwards, 1991, p. 37). In exchange for their commitment to a program, college coaches promise an athlete "he would be given money, would have access to an active social life, would be treated like royalty by those on campus and in the local community, and would be provided a quality education" (Wiggins, 1991, p. 164). Many student-athletes arrive on college and university campuses with the dream of making big money and aspirations to make it to the "big show." Soon after enrolling with optimistic ideals, they struggle with discrimination in the classroom and on the playing surface.

How the Academy is Failing the Black Student-Athlete

A pervasive issue revolving around the plight of Black student-athletes on campuses has commonly involved the intense isolation of their new environment. During the 1930s, only the best Black athletes were accepted into the colleges' athletic communities, and very few found a haven in the social community (Wiggins, 1991). These athletes found themselves on predominantly White campuses surrounded by predominantly White communities, and the academy made little effort to recruit non-athlete Black students (Wiggins, 1991). This situation has changed little over the course of history; as one Black football player professes: "You sometimes feel like the only person you can turn to is another black [sic] player on your team. We feel like we're alone—we're in the circle surrounded by a mass of whites [sic]" (Lederman, 1989, p. A34). Although the limited representation of Black students on campus may impede the cultivation of a strong community among Black students, a commitment to strengthening the existing community could alleviate the feeling of abandonment many Black student-athletes experience during their college years.

The process of excluding the Black student-athlete from membership in the community begins with recruiting procedures (Lapchick, 1984). A large proportion of White athletic prospects report that they participated in campus social activities during campus visits, whereas Black athletes describe very little exposure to the campus social offerings (Lapchick, 1984). In addition to inadequate recruitment efforts to lure more Black students to traditionally White colleges and universities, the demanding schedule imposed on athletes limits opportunities to immerse themselves in the campus community (Lederman, 1989). Lederman maintains that athletic programs "could do more for the athletes say, by giving players time to attend Black Student Alliance meetings or to go to counseling sessions during orientation week" (p. A36). "Black student-athletes . . . feeling supported by others may play a key role in successfully . . . assist[ing] minority students in coping with individual or institutional racism, in bridging cultural differences, and in maintaining motivation and focus so that they may succeed academically" (Petrie, 1993, p. 420).

Whether a team strives for the NFL Super Bowl or an Orange Bowl game deciding the NCAA champion, each team has one common goal—to win the "big game." The pressure to win is not going to disappear, and nationally ranked programs will engage in practices to ensure that the vast revenue generated will not suddenly evaporate. "Winning at all costs is the philosophy most coaches believe in, no matter what pieties they may utter. Alumni and boosters pay coaches, players, and families of players. Athletes disregard academics and dream of incomes far beyond their ability" (Lapchick, 1984, p. 163). The possibility to rise above the asphalt of inner cities prompts many youth to practice jump-shot after jump-shot. Parents recognize the potential avenue to success and mold their children in the cast of an athlete. Unfortunately, such a course hampers the educational development of these children. When a professional career does not evolve, the cast is taken off revealing an atrophied individual who is ill-prepared to survive and vulnerable to breaking under pressure.

The injustice of bringing a Black student-athlete to college with the promise of the "American Dream" is testimony to the selfish tendencies of many institutions. Predominantly White institutions readily admit all student-athletes, who will pad the institutional wallet whether or not they are prepared for a life outside of higher education. A Black student-athlete who demonstrates unparalleled athletic ability may contribute to the success of a reputable national athletic program. This same athlete may fail to attract the attention of professional scouts and agents, and after four years of service to the institution, the only place for the athlete to go is back home. The time spent at the academy is a tease whereby the institution furnishes a glamorous lifestyle for four years. When the Black student-athlete's playing days are over, collegiate athletics will replace them with other students anxious to take their place.

Black college athletes . . . typically are not furnished with opportunities to develop nonsport identities, learn job-related skills or extend knowledge about life outside sport, establish meaningful relationships with influential people in positions of power, garner material resources . . . and develop an awareness of abilities needed to nurture careers outside of sport. (Wiggins, 1991, p. 175)

Grant and Darley (1993) suggested that "some student athletes identify so completely with their sport that they seal themselves off from important alternatives such as academic achievement and job experience" (p. 441). Considering that Black student-athletes invest so much of their time balancing athletic demands and academic requirements, they often report that they feel isolated and estranged from campus life (Parham, 1993). In addition to time constraints, financial woes also contribute to their campus hardships (Parham). According to NCAA regulations, players are not allowed to hold even a part-time job at any point during the academic year (Fleisher III, Goff & Tollison, 1992). Therefore, for many Black athletes whose families cannot provide additional financial support the everyday practice of going to a movie or a dinner is economically impossible. These students are more prone to report feeling frustrated, imprisoned and exploited by their institutions (Parham). In addition, Black and White student-athletes must also resolve similar issues to those of their non-athlete classmates, such as depression, suicidal tendencies, loneliness, child abuse, gay/lesbian/bisexual identity formation, alcohol and drug abuse, health, and well-being (Parham).

Many people genuinely believe that athletics is a vehicle for leveling the playing field in society, where racial differences are finally balanced (Lapchick, 1984). Athletics is no different than any other area of society—racism is rampant. Hiring practices in professional and collegiate sports reveal that coaching and management positions evade Blacks. Due to the undercurrent of racism in athletics, former Black student-athletes have difficulty in landing jobs in the "intellectual" sector of sports (i.e., coaching, management, scouting). The power elite in the sports realm is sending the intolerable message that Black student-athletes have little potential to contribute to athletics other than in the playing of the game. In fact, successful Black coaches are often praised for their motivational abilities, whereas their White colleagues are heralded for their intellectual qualities.

A Case Study

Miracle, Jr. and Rees (1994) conducted a study in which they lived with the Black and White male college basketball players of a prominent Division I university for four years in order to evaluate how well student-athletes balance academics and athletics. Every player who entered the program enthusiastically anticipated earning a college degree and landing a good job after graduation: "If I can use my basketball ability to open up the door to get an education, hopefully I can use my degree to get a good job" (Miracles, Jr. & Rees, 1994, p. 144). Eventually, balancing the pressures of performing at a big-time athletic school and keeping up with the rigors of a college education became overwhelming for these student-athletes. In order to alleviate the burden of maintaining balance, they chose the route of detachment from academics. The researchers mentioned three areas which caused a disillusionment in their studies: the work was beyond their intellectual ability, they were advised (socially and academically) by coaches under intense pressure to win, and they were influenced by a peer culture which devalues academics and champions sports. At the close of the study, these student-athletes began to accept their marginal status as students, and their priorities shifted solely to maintaining their eligibility or refining their talents for a professional basketball career. This study perfectly illustrates that the dream of athletic stardom is a powerful addiction from which Black and White student-athletes may never recover.

A Challenging and Troubling Dilemma

Jacqueline Fleming's research revealed that the different experiences of Black students in predominantly White institutions warrants an extensive investigation as to how their college environment affects their overall development (1991). Many predominantly White institutions appear multiculturally diverse through the exposure their racially balanced athletic teams receive in the media. This compounds the problems Black student-athletes already face, such as racial tension, isolation, and discrimination, in addition to all the other distractions any student must overcome (Fleming). Fleming contended that Black students on predominantly White campuses encounter a hostile environment which triggers a defensiveness that interferes with their intellectual development, interpersonal well-being, and, ultimately, their resolution of identity. Social isolation caused by racial conflict suffocates an opportunity to engage in the well-rounded activities of college life. In some ways, participation in college athletics shields Black students from the racial dilemma that runs rampant on most predominantly White campuses (Lederman, 1989). These students are welcomed into the accepting community of the athletic team, and fans embrace them for their athletic contributions (Lapchick, 1984). According to Fleming, Black students may experience limited identity formation on predominantly White campuses as they try to overcome the following negative influences: apathy, depression, feelings of hopelessness, alienation, anger, hostility, conflicts in interpersonal relationships.

A Glimmer of Hope

At Memphis State University, the lowest graduation rates of Black athletes in the nation forced the administration to develop a system better equipped to meet the needs of the students (Lederman, 1988). Required study hall attendance, better counseling opportunities, and closely followed classroom attendance and performance each contributed to a 50% increase in graduation rates since 1985-1986 (Lederman). Recent efforts by the NCAA promise significant improvements in the academic experience of athletes—strategies long recognized and requested by Black athletes. For instance, the NCAA Degree-Completion Program is a project meant to provide the necessary financial assistance for any former student-athlete to complete the coursework necessary for a degree. Subsequently, over 500 athletes have benefited from this program since its inception in 1988 (Mott, 1994). In addition, the NCAA Life-Skills Program attempts to enhance all student-athletes' deficiencies in communication, career development, and interpersonal skills in the following areas: academic and athletic excellence, personal development, service and career development (Mott). A shift in the academic responsibilities from the athletic department to student services (with budgets of $50,000 and $235,000 devoted to counseling respectively) corresponds to greater graduation rates (Lederman, 1988). Memphis State University's new program structure provides proof of the effectiveness of programs responsive to the needs of Black student-athletes.

While the value of athletics is widely debated, many researchers espouse several benefits of college athletic participation. Andre and James (1991) identified the following positive influences: creates avenues for expression of personality and individuality, develops camaraderie, affords opportunities to take risks (physical, strategic and emotional), necessitates an understanding of cooperation (teamwork), provides drama and pleasure, nurtures cognitive development and offers experiences in which Black and White student-athletes may discover self-actualization, self-empowerment or mutual affirmation. In addition, Miracle, Jr. and Rees (1994) proposed that sports improves future occupational outcomes and earnings (for only a select few), decreases drug use by enhancing self-esteem, and yields greater academic success (in light of the correlation between involvement and academic achievement). Proponents overwhelmingly champion athletic participation as a means of building character.

Implications for Student Affairs Professionals

Lapchick (1984) asserted the best approach is one which provides an incentive for institutions of higher education to cater more to the academic needs of Black and White athletes. An athlete's academic development should influence whether a college or university gains accreditation (Lapchick). If an institution's reputation and integrity are at stake, it is more likely to make the commitment to ensure a quality academic experience. A well-organized mentoring program in which former athletes would relate their experiences to incoming athletes would connect them more readily to reality (Lapchick). This program could be complemented by providing advisors, properly trained to help prepare student-athletes deal with the end of their athletic career and adjust to a life outside of sports. Because Black student-athletes are students, and "since the needs of student-athletes parallel those of other students, it stands to reason that any program for advising black [sic] student-athletes should have a developmental and theoretical foundation" (Roper, 1988, p. 93).

In response to the dual role all student-athletes must perfect in order to prosper in the college environment, Gordon (1986) offered a prescription to better cultivate student-athlete development. Although his work focused on the role of academic advisors, student affairs professionals could address the critical needs of Black student-athletes. The four areas Gordon identified include the relationship between athletic participation and academics, individual differences among student-athlete populations (both inter-campus and intra-campus), potentially conflicting roles of student and athlete, and special program needs of student-athletes.

Gordon (1986) emphasized that the balance between the athletic and academic roles can be achieved through efforts to understand how athletic participation lends to positive or negative influences on individual growth and academic achievement. Obstacles in the way of easing student-athletes into the appropriate balance of involvement and academics currently rest on the notion that researchers have traditionally targeted student-athletes as a homogeneous group, forgetting individual differences associated with race and personal backgrounds. It is essential to focus on individual academic preparation, progress and potential. Similarly, advisors should assist each student-athlete to assess and explore academic and personal development alternatives which are consistent with their personalities and backgrounds. The role conflict between student and athlete touches on the important work of Chickering and Reisser's (1993) student development theory. Chickering and Reisser explored two areas that pertain to the student-athlete population: developing purpose and developing mature interpersonal relationships. In defining a purpose, student-athletes struggle most in developing educational and career goals (Gordon, 1986). The isolation Black student-athletes endure, as they perfect their talents and skills in practice and showcase their ability to perform in front of a roaring crowd, hinders their development of interpersonal relationships. Financial constraints impose limits on the feasibility of interacting socially outside the gym or the classroom. In addition, separate living arrangements for these student-athletes forces their seclusion from the general campus population.

The many needs of student-athletes cannot be ignored if the academy desires to fulfill its mission. Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State's football program, emphasized the importance of putting the student back into the student athlete: "Student-athletes should be physically and emotionally prepared for the demanding experience of professional sports and should be counseled and encouraged to complete their education to be prepared for life after the roar of the crowd" (Bailey & Littleton, 1991, p. 92). Their needs reach beyond simple and complex academic concerns. Gordon (1986) recommended programs which focus on a student-athlete's social skills, career planning and decision-making skills, leadership development, self-concept and self-empowerment development. Other programming efforts could nurture the further development of student-athletes' intellectual, personal and social compentencies, while refining their autonomy, sense of purpose and ability to develop caring, interpersonal relationships. understandings gained with skill, pain, and frustration on the field of play are not a part of the continuum of value that extends on Monday morning into the realm of books and ideas, then all the cynical derogations of college sports are difficult to reject: that the participants, the players, are no more than hired guns performing briefly for this or that team, or a labor supply for a giant entertainment industry. (Bailey & Littleton, 1991, p. 139)

When the Final Buzzer Sounds

Many young children in the inner cities across the country see superstars such as Emmit Smith, Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Charles Barkley, and they receive positive images of escaping the clutches of poverty and welfare. Rather than invest their time in schoolwork, they spend countless hours perfecting the jump-shot that will one day earn them millions of dollars. Recruiters from attractive Division I programs confirm that a professional career is within their grasp. Rarely do these athletes consider the educational opportunity that accompanies collegiate athletic scholarships, and coaches emphasize winning the first day they arrive on campus. The following perception is commonplace among incoming Black athletes: "Football was going to make me famous. And I knew I wasn't dreaming because everyone told me I was good" (Lapchick, 1984, p. 202). Unfortunately, only if changes in the philosophies of college and university administrators occur will a complete education be possible. Otherwise, tragic stories of athletes such as Fred Buttler will continue to strip Black student-athletes of their humanity and dignity:

When Fred Buttler was released from jail as charges were dropped after the accidental shooting of his father, he could not visit his father's grave because he could not read the signd in the cemetary. The police refused to let him attend the burial. This is Fred Buttler's sports legacy. He is still living with it in America today. (Lapchick, 1984, p. 203)


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1 To insure inclusiveness and consistency throughout the manuscript, the author chooses the term Black rather than African American. This study addresses the experiences of African American student-athletes as well as Black student-athletes who do not consider themselves of African American descent. The author's intentions are to be as inclusive as possible, and the selection of the term is not meant to offend or exclude.

Pete Barbalias is a 1994 graduate of The University of Vermont where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Biology. Currently, Pete is a second year HESA student at UVM, and he works in admissions and residence life at Johnson State College.