America’s Costly Mad Sports Love

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

By Stephane Dunn
Monday, June 15, 2009.
Recently, a friend who was working in an athletic department at a big time sports school discovered just how much we love the money and thrill that comes with winning college sports programs. He was uncomfortable with the ease in which coaches and athletes expected and demanded that academic responsibilities be lightened, excused, and manipulated in the pursuit of building and maintaining strong sports programs. That such business is common at too many schools despite NCAA rules and supervision makes the very ordering of the term ‘Student athlete’ something of a joke.The current revelation about the fraudulent allegations surrounding NBA Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose and the Memphis basketball program dramatically highlights some disturbing intertwining problems, including the NBA’s laughable one year of college requirement before draft eligibility and the still overall unimpressive graduation rates of black male athletes in Division I basketball programs.
But this latest and still too little discussed Memphis scandal is especially symptomatic of how we’ve increasingly devalued education in favor of our mad sports love.
For black male athletes aspiring to be the next Rose or favored NFL draft pick, this has far deeper ramifications as it feeds into a cultural tragedy that’s garnered more mouth speak than radical change in young athletes’ and fans’ consciousness: The devaluation of education as both a means to a future and ever more distant in our esteem –the value of literacy and the development of the mind.There is a lot of blame to go around. Parents, students, coaches and recruiters, the NCAA, big time sports apparel companies, and the problematic bridge between college basketball and the NBA are particularly at fault in the Rose fiasco and the many instances of grade inflation and cheating at numerous schools over the years.
Unfortunately, the exploitation of young black athletes is difficult to stem; they want to be the next Lebron James and parents want the same. The lure of reaping great financial rewards earlier rather than later is certainly understandable especially to the many athletes coming from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These young men can’t wait to buy Mama a house and purchase that first expensive dream car. For some, sports, like music, remains one of the most seductive channels for moving up in the world, out of poverty, and/or quite literally the ghetto.Too many of these young black men never get a chance to think of formal education as a serious roadmap into a bright future. Athletes often get ‘special’ treatment; problems with literacy are overlooked, course failures becomes passes, and as we see with Rose, any potential barrier to the real goal –reaching the next level beyond high school and college- like an SAT test or a grade can be sidestepped if enough school administrators and coaches as well as sports leagues are willing to manipulate or at least look the other way to make it happen.
The rise of AAU clubs has helped too. They might be a venue for developing athletic skills but they are part of an exploitative system in which young athletes become chess pieces in a competitive, lucrative tug of war. The development of these athletes’ basic skills and regard for their education is a casualty of the bigger focus on discovering and owning a piece of the next hot prospect. Instead, college athletes’ main job is sports; even gaining expertise in a non-athletic profession is secondary despite the so-called academic standard policies by schools and the NCAA. This is not to suggest that every kid is or should be bound for college but it is sad that the percentage of black men in college (about 28% of the African American population ages 18-24) is not even higher while a still too large percentage (just over 10% of that age group according to a 2005 Census Bureau report) goes to prison. Despite an overall increase in recent years, a check of graduation rates for African American male athletes at some highly seeded basketball schools will reveal shameful numbers.
Do we care if a million potential Roses can read and write well or at all or if they are cheated of many kinds of valuable learning or another potential gateway to a successful career? Do we care that while there are thousands of young black men who grow up dreaming of athletic fame and fortune, only a tiny percentage will actually end up being drafted or becoming highly paid NFL and NBA stars? Certainly, this is not era in which we connect combined academic and athletic ambition and dedication to black athletes or celebrate it; this is not a Paul Robeson generation of student-athletes. Neither the mainstream sports media nor popular black media outlets – talk radio shows included spend a lot of time interrogating the implications and costs of the systemic exploitation of young athletes.
The glamour of sports fame and the thrill of watching competition and the display of athletic prowess overshadow some nasty realities. Thus, the attention on black athletes who decide to stay in school and ‘risk’ many would argue, breaking a leg before being drafted and outstanding student athletes like Florida State football player and Rhodes scholar Myron Rolle, do not become hot topics of discussion.There will continue to be NCAA investigations and sports programs suspensions and a few, like the current scandal, will get some momentary media attention but it’s really too little. A far greater number of violations will go undiscovered and unchecked.
Meanwhile, a number of known and many more anonymous ‘student’ athletes will continue to gratefully and in some cases arrogantly accept the favors that come with being an athlete in high school and college. Too many parents with visions of cheering famous sons will blissfully ignore serious academic deficiencies and performances or neglect to ask or interrogate academic development, the sports league clubs and high school and college recruiters and coaches at major sports schools. And smaller ones will go on either directly or indirectly supporting the plethora of ‘tutors’ and teachers and test takers who ‘help’ athletes remain academically eligible.
Sport apparel companies will be on the hunt for tomorrow’s hottest marketing commodity, and the NBA will continue to feign concern about very young athletes’ readiness for the league with a policy that does little to either value education or develop very young athletes’ maturity. And the disregard of academic integrity and education will continue to be bolstered by our costly mad sports love. ***Dr Stephane Dunn is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia. She has also taught at Ohio State University. A scholarly and creative writer, she specializes in film, popular culture, literature and African American studies. She is the author of articles and commentaries and the book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008).

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