I was sitting in front of my TV set flipping through one channel after another, and I found something that both intrigued and concerned me: An ESPN special about the image of the black athlete. I was curious to see what they had to say about black athletes, especially males, since that's something I think about nearly every single day of my life.
The panel consisted of Jalen Rose, John Calipari, Randy Shannon, Spike Lee, Robin Roberts and others. The crew seemed to be mostly an ESPN bunch, with Spike Lee thrown in for good measure. I was hopeful that a black Sociologist, an expert on race and media or a Sports Psychologist could be brought in to help put the experience of the African American athlete into perspective. Most of the members of the panel were sports journalists, which produces one point of view, but may not be broad enough to understand the entirety of a complex problem.
I was also secretly hopeful that none of the panelists would not succumb to the temptation of taking the paternalistic viewpoint that black male athletes are somehow destined to be ignorant and need to be told what to do. For example, unlike any other sport, men's basketball and football are the only ones in which there are age limits before the athlete can become a professional. The reasons for these regulations are driven primarily by the argument that the men are too young to go out and support their families by doing what they do for the NCAA without being compensated.
I couldn't help but notice John Calipari's presence on the panel. Calipari, the men's head basketball coach at The University of Kentucky, is one of the leading beneficiaries of the NCAA sweatshop. He earns millions from the University of Kentucky while maintaining one of the most abysmal academic performance rates in the country. He runs his teams like professional sports franchises, and universities hire him because he wins games. His presence on the campus of the University of Kentucky is the single greatest indicator of the university's lack of commitment to educating its athletes.
Some of the advice that the panelists gave presented accurate and sound reflections on the most common mistakes committed by black athletes in America. Calipari, to his credit, said that he advises all of the athletes who leave his program for the NBA to take a financial management course. He also said, which I scream at the top of my lungs, that if you're not educated about your money, you're simply begging for someone to take it away from you. So, as much as I might criticize Calipari, it appears that he might be relatively good at preparing his athletes for the real world. I must give him credit for his honest, working-class approach to confronting the realities that many athletes face at home.
Professor Richard Lapchick, the Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, brought up a very compelling point. Lapchick noted that when it comes to shaping the images of black athletes in America, most of those images are being constructed by sports journalists and editors throughout the country, most of whom are white males. Lapchick also mentioned that while many of these individuals have something to say about the decisions of black athletes, most of them don't know what in the heck they're talking about.
My favorite part of the discussion was when Spike Lee, Jalen Rose and Mike Wilbon made an excellent point about athlete compensation. Jalen Rose started the dialogue by noting that even if he had a 4.0 GPA, if his coach had decided that he didn't belong on the team, he'd be asked to transfer. Wilbon and Lee jumped on Rose's point by noting that universities do not encourage (and sometimes disallow) athletes to choose majors that interfere with their sports schedules. That led to Spike noting that collegiate athletics is already a full-time job for these athletes and that college athletes should be paid. Way to go Spike for bringing home that important point.
I found myself slightly concerned by how the panelists addressed the holy trinity of black male destruction in America: The educational system, athletics and the criminal justice system. When a woman in the audience asked how she can convince her 17-year old nephew to consider career options other than athletics, several panelists mentioned the obvious: to expose the young man to viable alternatives. The problem, however, was that when the conversation was extrapolated into black male graduation and incarceration rates, the entire discussion was framed as if it's simply a matter of telling these men to "get it together." To be sure, personal responsibility plays a key role in the outcomes of the black male in America, but black men do not have a monopoly on irresponsible behavior.
To properly assess systemic problems, we must also collectively discuss broader societal and institutional factors, such as the lack of funding for inner city education, the explosion of the mass incarceration epidemic over the last 40 years, the lack of media access and control for those who seek to portray more positive and diverse African American imagery and the fact that black men are more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced than members of other ethnic groups, even when they commit the same crimes. There's no question whatsoever that many of our brothers do need to get it together, but I can tell you as a black man who nearly dropped out of high school and also saw his best friend shot in the head, things aren't always simple for black men, even when they try to make the right choices. America is a country that has been designed since birth to exterminate African American men, so the number of landmines we face are seemingly endless.
At the end of the day, I was happy to see ESPN evaluate the state of the black athlete right near the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All of us should carefully evaluate the state of the black athlete in America, in large part because this defines a substantial proportion of the experience of the black male in general. If you go through most neighborhoods across the country, you'll notice that a large percentage of black boys want to become either athletes or rappers. So, this experience speaks to all of us, and it's important that the mothers and fathers raising these boys understand what's going on inside their heads. We've all got to do much better.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the Athlete Liberation and Academic Reform Movement (ALARM). To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.