Why Black College Football Players Fall Behind In Education

New research raises concerns about low graduations rates for black college football players. Host Michel Martin finds out more from education reporter Emily Richmond, and professor Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend some time today talking about some important issues in the world of sports and entertainment. We'll talk about how and why it's becoming clearer that head injuries are not just a problem in football.

But first, we want to talk about college football. There are three new reports out now, which raise troubling new evidence about a wide achievement gap between white college football players and their African-American counterparts. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called on Emily Richmond. She wrote about these studies in a recent piece for The Atlantic. Welcome back, Emily Richmond. Thanks for joining us once again.

EMILY RICHMOND: Oh, it's my pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Shaun Harper. He is an associate professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. That's at University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. That center published one of those reports that we're going to talk about titled "Black Male Student-Athletes and the 2014 Bowl Championship Series." Professor Harper, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

SHAUN HARPER: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So I'm going to start with you, Emily Richmond, because the title of your piece in The Atlantic is "How Colleges Fail Black Football Players." Now it's not new news, unfortunately. And so what is it about these three new reports that raise such alarms for you?

RICHMOND: Well, certainly the news is not necessarily new, but it becomes more alarming when you get three substantial reports all coming out within days of each other. We have the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, the New America Foundation based in Washington, D.C. and a center at the University of Central Florida - their Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. And while the methodology used by these reports differ to a degree, the conclusions were similar. Black football players are graduating at significantly lower rates than their white teammates, other student-athletes and the average college student overall. And that's consistent with prior studies in other years.

MARTIN: Now let's go to Professor Harper now because your study was one of the ones that was cited in Emily's piece. And looking at the top 25 schools in the Bowl Championship Series - the BCS rankings - on average, 50 percent of black male student-athletes will graduate within six years. Why do you think that that's such a significant concern?

HARPER: I think it's a significant concern on many levels. One, because black male students are so tragically overrepresented on these football teams. So in these top 25 BCS schools, they are 60 percent of the football teams, yet only 3 percent of undergraduate students at those places. So...

MARTIN: Well, why do you - let me just stop you right there. Why do you use that term tragically overrepresented on these football teams? I mean, a lot of people would say, well, if this is a vehicle by which you get to go to college, you know, what's the problem? Why do you use that term?

HARPER: Sure, my perspective is that simply getting to college on its own is insufficient if one does not leave with a bachelor's degree in hand four, five or six years after enrolling. So that's one concern of mine. Another is that institutions have been claiming for years that we can't seem to find a suitable number of black students in general, and black male students in particular, who are ready for college, who meet our admissions standards and so on. Yet they seem to find them just fine for these revenue-generating sports teams.

MARTIN: Emily, one of the reports you reviewed says that this isn't the case at all colleges, that Stanford and Duke are standouts when it comes to the graduation rates of all of its student-athletes. And there is some disparity there. What are they doing different?

RICHMOND: You know, I asked Stanford that question, and I got an interesting response. First of all, they don't like these kinds of comparisons. Their argument - and it's a reasonable one - is that every school is different, every student body is different, and it's tough to make these kinds of generalizations. But what they did tell me is they believe there's a fair amount of self-selection happening at the enrollment process.

When students decide they want to play for Stanford, they want to play for Stanford, but they also see a tremendous value in owning a degree from Stanford. And then once the students get to campus, Stanford tells me they have intensive support services for them, including an academic advisor, a major advisor, tutoring, skills development programs. Those, of course, are things that are available to all students at Stanford and at many other universities that put a real priority on academic success.

MARTIN: Professor Harper, what's your perspective on this? I mean, I think it's interesting to note the comparisons across the student body in general and across all student-athletes in general. But I think it's particularly interesting to drill down on the comparison just within the football program. First of all, are the graduation rates for the white football players anything to brag about? And then, why the disparity with the black male athletes in your opinion?

HARPER: Sure, so a perfect number for me would be 100 percent of student-athletes graduating regardless of race and sport, right? So the question about whether the white graduation rate is one to brag about - maybe not. But it is substantially better - 17 percentage points higher than black male students.

MARTIN: So why do you think that disparity - that just that racial disparity exists?

HARPER: I think there are a myriad of explanations for that. As Emily indicated from her conversation with folks at Stanford, there is a difference in who selects to apply to a place like Stanford, Duke or even the University of Pennsylvania versus one of those sort of powerhouse sports programs. So that's one. Another, I think, is the way that coaches actually go about seducing black players and their families. You know, they go to their homes.

They go to their schools and have these conversations with them about how wonderful it would be if they come to this institution. And it will set them up for transition to professional sports in the afterlife. But the reality is that 98 percent of college student-athletes will not be drafted into the NFL or the NBA. So even the motive that, you know, is used to lure these very talented - athletically talented people doesn't pay off in the end.

MARTIN: You used the term again seduce, which is, I think, intended to be pejorative. Are you saying that they're specifically targeting black students in these ways that are not completely honest? Or do you feel that they seduce all students in this way, and it has particular effects for the black students?

HARPER: It could be, right? So I haven't studied in an ethnographic way, like, how coaches actually go about engaging in conversations with prospective players. But if we look at the compositions of the teams, you know, it would stand to reason that the seduction either has disproportionate effects or is used more often with black players given that they comprise nearly two-thirds of these teams. So there's that. And then I also know from numerous visits to college campuses and being engaged with conversations with my colleagues and athletics departments and so on that there is some dishonesty in the recruitment of particular players whom I would argue are disproportionately black, right?

There's this poster that the University of Alabama head coach uses to recruit players. And I would encourage your listeners to just simply Google Nick Saban recruitment poster. And you'll see that there are these checks - they're literally images of checks with NFL football logos on each that talks about the amount of money that former players of Saban's have earned once they entered the NFL. Well, if you grew up poor like me and grew up in a neighborhood where I grew up, you would absolutely be seduced by that kind of iconography, by that kind of poster, right, because it seems like a pathway to economic prosperity, which again, for 98 percent of these people is just not going to happen.

MARTIN: Emily, do you have any additional insights here because I think others might argue that perhaps it's a disparity in academic preparation. It could be. Or it could be a difference in view about other economic opportunities beyond sports.

RICHMOND: Without question, for a lot of these guys, what's made them successful on the field isn't necessarily what's going to make them successful in the classroom. And for some of them, when they get to college, that can be a real shock. In a lot of cases, they're going to wind up on a campus that's bigger than any place they've ever gone to school, in classes that are larger than any place they've ever gone to school, with professors who are expecting a level of competence and effort that they may have never seen before in an academic setting.

And, you know, I've talked to professors at Division I schools, and it seems that there is a real stretch between the campuses and how football players and student-athletes are supported. I've heard from professors at Division I schools who say when a kid is absent from class a couple of times, misses a few assignments, he'll drop a note to the mentor. And the mentor, the next day, is in the office with the student coming up with a plan to make up the missing work. And they notice a real change in the student's behavior. In other places, they never see or hear from the mentor until the kid gets the failing grade. And by then, it's too late. You know, but I really think this isn't about comparing black football players to those national averages.

This is a special population of students that's supposed to be getting extraordinary support in exchange for their athletic contributions. They're exposing themselves, we know, to the risk of both short-term and potentially long-term physical harm. And we hear the argument over and over again that student athletes need to be paid. And when people hear that and want to counter it, what they say is they are being compensated. They're getting a free college education. But for many of these young men, as we know, that simply isn't the reality.

MARTIN: Professor Harper, final thought. What would you like to see happen in the wake of this?

HARPER: Lots of different things. One, which was the foremost goal of the report, is more transparency about the realities of these numbers. I think that folks could take a look at their television screens or sort of look out onto the field from the bleachers and see that, you know, there is some racial disproportionality in representation but not quite understand just how pervasive it is. I would also like for there to be more efforts from the NCAA to better support racial equity in college athletics.

Our report is filled with recommendations for different stakeholder groups - parents and families, sports conferences, the NCAA, journalists, university presidents and so on. I want people to read these ideas that we put forward, which I firmly believe will help eradicate or at least reduce some of these ridiculous trends that we see.

MARTIN: Shaun Harper is an associate professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. That center published a recent report titled "Black Male Student-Athletes and the 2014 Bowl Championship Series." We reached him in Philadelphia. Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She wrote about how black college football players are performing off the field in the classroom for The Atlantic. The piece is titled "How Colleges Fail Black Football Players." And she joined us from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RICHMOND: It was my pleasure, Michel, I enjoyed it. Thank you.

HARPER: Thank you.

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