NHL Teams Up With Black Colleges

The National Hockey League wants to broaden its reach, particularly to African American students. So the NHL is joining forces with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to offer scholarships to students in hockey programs to attend public historic black colleges and universities. Host Michel Martin talks with Johnny C. Taylor Jr., head of the fund.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to switch gears now to talk about what some might consider a surprising partnership between historically black colleges and universities - or HBCUs - and the National Hockey League. The NHL wants to attract people from groups that have not traditionally participated in the sport. So, through its Hockey is for Everyone initiative, it has joined forces with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which offers scholarships to students at public HBCUs. The partnership aims to encourage African-American youths to participate in NHL-sponsored hockey programs, which could make them eligible for a full academic scholarship.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. He is the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR, JR.: I'm so glad to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: So how did this come about? I guess - who saw who first?

JR.: So, it's fascinating. My vice president of governmental affairs, a guy by the name of Willie Moe, came in to me one day. He said, Johnny, I think there's an opportunity for us to partner with the National Hockey League. And I have to admit, initially, I just didn't see it. You know, life is like that. I said, you know, if this had been the NBA, the NFL, there are a lot of obvious - or more obvious connections. But he said, really, we need to pursue this. Well, a couple of weeks later...

MARTIN: Well, let me just say, there might be good reasons why you thought that. Of the 700 NHL players this season who are signed this season, only 33 are African-American or Afro-Canadian...

JR.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and just 17 of them play on the so-called premier teams. The other 16 that been drafted.

JR.: That's right.

MARTIN: So, there is not a very strong presence of people of African descent on these teams. So you could understand why you might think that. And then...

JR.: And then, so Willie said, well, why don't you join representatives from the NHL and Willie and Johnny? He said, why don't all come together, and we're going to go to New York. We're going to go to a game at Madison Square Garden. So I said, sure.

I got there, and first of all, I was really surprised that there - pardon my ignorance. Now, here I am, this guy, well-educated, supposedly very experienced. And then I looked and said, gosh, this is a really big event. More importantly, it dawned on me that it was really white. And I don't say that with any level of disrespect, but there was very little diversity in the room.

The gentleman I was sitting with, though, from the NHL said we have this campaign that you're going to hear a lot about today on the speakers around the arena, and it was hockey is for everyone. I have to tell you, after about 45 minutes, they had said it enough, and I saw the actual outreach to the community enough that I said: This really resonates, and it would be a big deal for our campuses.

MARTIN: What exactly is the program? And just to sort of clarify for people, I think people can understand why a lot of African-Americans have not been involved in hockey, because particularly through the HBCUs, which have, were - many of them started in the South.

JR.: That's right.

MARTIN: And hockey is traditionally a northern sport, where people are indoors, or where there are outdoor ice rinks.

JR.: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: So what will this initiative do?

JR.: So the first that we'll do is - these programs - and I give the National Hockey League credit, and many of its teams credits - for years they've been hosting these in some of your larger northern cities - the Philadelphias, the Bostons, etc. They've been bringing these students from K-12, you know, through 18 years old, from inner-city areas into the hockey fold, giving them something to do. You know, you often hear of midnight basketball programs, but rarely did you know - or did I even know - that there were these sorts of initiatives for hockey, those students interested in hockey.

Well, but then what? Because many of them would finish those programs, like most sports, not make it to the professional levels. And then even if they wanted to play it in college, you didn't have them on HBCU campuses. There were no hockey clubs or hockey teams on HBCU campuses. So they actually have been far more insightful than even I would have thought. They've been spending time building the K-12, if you will, programs. And the next logical step is: OK, when the students graduate, where do they go next? And HBCUs, we believe, and they believe, are a perfect place for these students to transition.

MARTIN: So how will this scholarship work? As I understand it, the scholarship goes to those who have participated in the sport before going to college, so that kids who have been involved in club hockey or high school hockey will have an opportunity for a scholarship to go to the HBCUs. But as you said, once a lot of kids go to HBCUs, there aren't ice rinks for them. There aren't ways for them to continue their participation in the sport. So...

JR.: Well, so sort of, sort of, sort of not. I mean, on one level, what I would say to you is that as the young folks come to matriculate on our campuses, there are hockey teams in major markets that would surprise you, like Miami, the Florida Panthers. And there's not a whole bunch of hockey - you know, there's not - no ice down there. But they have found a way to create opportunities for them. So students who might attend Florida A&M or one of the other HBCUs in that market can participate in the local sort of intramural efforts that aren't on their college campuses, but will continue to allow them to pursue the sport and their interest in the sport.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. He is the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. It supports students at the public HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. And we're talking about a partnership that has just started between the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Hockey League. The program, as I understand it, is officially set to launch in 2013.

JR.: 2013, fall of 2013.

MARTIN: A hundred thousand - fall of 2013. But $100,000 has already been raised.

JR.: Yes.

MARTIN: And I understand that one of the fundraising components is the Congressional Hockey Challenge charity game, which was set to take place over the weekend.

JR.: Yes. And a very successful event, where a number of members of Congress who are very interested in hockey came together, and they played sort of a fun sport - a scrimmage, if you will - with professional hockey players.

MARTIN: Hopefully no hands were thrown, no gloves were taken off.

But on a serious note, on a serious note, though, I have to ask you, Mr. Taylor - there are those would argue that part of the issue for African-Americans - boys, particularly - is not just the achievement, the so-called achievement gap in testing, but that there's a sense that - you may agree or disagree - that young African-American youths are already overly invested in sport as an avenue for achievement, that, you know, African-American youth, for, you know, for whatever reason, are kind of steered towards sports and kind get this attitude that that's the only way to get ahead, either sports or entertainment. And so I have to ask you whether, you know, as a leader in the field who's dedicated to improving the opportunities for African-Americans, particularly through education, is this really the best place to put your time?

JR.: Well, what's great about this - and this is the beauty of this program - is the National Hockey League recognizes that we don't have HBCU clubs, hockey clubs. So they're investing in this no so much of purposes of recruiting or developing future players. They're doing it because the end goal is to get these young folks into college and ultimately have them graduate from college. So this is a scholarship initiative. It's intended to help students from these communities graduate from college and pursue careers.

MARTIN: So they're not funding athletic scholarships at institutions where they will play hockey through college. The point is that once these scholarships are awarded, they will be awarded for academic work, and not tied to participation in hockey.

JR.: That's exactly the point.

MARTIN: And so, finally, what are they getting out of this, if you don't mind my asking?

JR.: I think there's a certain amount philanthropic good will. There's no question that they think it's the right thing to do for the community. But it's also - and it can't be lost - I can't speak for them - but it can't be lost on them that ultimately you want to grow your audience. America is browning, and 20 years from now, that audience is going to look different. And so they want their audience to look like America. And so I think that if they're smart right now and begin developing relationships with this community, the younger members of the community, 20 years from now when you look out, that audience will not be the same audience that I experienced three or four months ago.

MARTIN: So can I get you to tell me - now that you've been exposed to the sport, can I press you on a team...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JR.: Well...

MARTIN: I know your office is near, in Washington, D.C.

JR.: ...I still live in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So...

JR.: So I'm Capitals fan.

MARTIN: You're a Capitals fan. You're red, all the way, right?

JR.: That's right.

MARTIN: Safe answer, political answer. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much, Mr. Taylor. We appreciate it.

JR.: Thank you. Thank you.

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