Isiah Thomas and Na’liah Suad Nasir
I entered Indiana University in 1979 as a freshman on scholarship from the inner city of the West Side of Chicago. Our team at Indiana University went on to win the NCAA championship in my second year, and I left college to enter the NBA in 1981. While I was a full-time player for the Detroit Pistons, I remained a college student attending summer school every year until I graduated in 1987. My NBA career lasted 13 years and included two NBA championships.
Recently, my community-based work has taken me back to my hometown of Chicago, where I have partnered with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church to facilitate truces in an effort to stop youth gang violence through promoting education and peace basketball tournaments. I was blessed to have graduated at every level of my educational experience, especially since I grew up below the poverty line and had little advantage in life other than a mother who fought hard for her kids. While I was very fortunate in my academic and athletic endeavors, too many other Black male athletes have a very different trajectory.
I am currently in the process of completing a Master’s degree in Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where I have studied the connections between education and sports. In pursuing this degree, I have had the time to reflect on how we, as a society, make available access to education for athletes, especially Black male athletes.
My co-author is a college professor and scholar of African American education. She studies the ways that race and racial stratification influence educational trajectories and opportunities to learn. She is currently chair of the African American Studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, and works in multiple ways with student athletes on campus.
We argue that college athletics, as it intersects with the educational and life outcomes of Black male athletes, is in crisis. This crisis is evident in many ways, including the prevalence of once-aspiring professional Black male athletes who end up with no degree, few job prospects, and used-up eligibility. Our educational system, and indeed our society, has failed these young people. One of the ways this manifests is in the low graduation rates for Black male basketball players. Only 65% of African American basketball student-athletes graduated in 2013. There is a 25-percent gap between the graduation rates of white and Black basketball student-athletes. Further, 21 of the 68 teams to compete in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament had black graduation rates below 50%. Right here at our very own university, the University of California, Berkeley, the graduation rate for Black male basketball players in 2013 was only 33 percent. What this means is that many Black male basketball players are leaving college without the degree or requisite skills to embark upon a professional career, a price, which only later down the road do students come to understand. We argue that these trends are not the product of conspiratorial athletic directors, coaches, or faculty, but are created by virtue of a system that creates a default pathway that too often does not include a college degree.
Why is it so common for athletes, especially Black male athletes, to graduate at lower rates than their non-Black counterparts? Certainly, it is not the case that Black male athletes do not aspire to a college degree. I know from personal experiences as a player at Indiana University and then later as a coach at Florida International University, that the young men I coached and played with and against all desired to graduate from the institutions they attended.
However, there are structural forces and institutional structures at play that, when taken together, unintentionally constrain the ability of Black male athletes to graduate. The first of these structural forces is that many Black student athletes come to campus with poor academic preparation. This is often due to the poor quality of urban public schooling in our nation, and reflects recruiting practices and priorities that privilege athletics and not academics, thus putting young people in situations where it is extremely challenging for them to excel academically. Many (though not all) of these Black male student athletes come from high-poverty neighborhoods, and thus face additional challenges in their transition to college. These include needing to support family members at home, struggling to meet their own expenses, and not having the same level of support as other students.
There is tremendous incentive for high-profile college athletes to focus on athletics rather than academics. For students from families struggling with poverty, there can be significant pressure to go pro early to better support their families. These financial pressures faced by students and their families are pressing and urgent for Black male athletes who deal with the daily effects of poverty. When combined with the encouragement by family, the campus community, and others to see themselves as bound for a professional sports career, athletes view their futures as being more tied to their athletic performance than their academic performance, and they focus their energy and time accordingly. When this focus is underscored by the dire financial need of the athletes and their families, the incentive to becoming a better athlete is even more pronounced. Finally, Black male student athletes experience significant academic stereotyping on college campuses. Not only have they been trained to think about themselves as athlete’s first and students second, university administrators, staff, and faculty often also convey this message to Black male student athletes. This academic stereotyping is linked to longstanding and pervasive stereotypes about Black men as anti-intellectual and as having innate physical abilities. It also poses a problem in that a dream of playing in the NBA is realized by just a fraction of the players at the college level. Education, once considered the backstop for an athlete that failed to make it to the professional level, is becoming all the more elusive.
It is critical that we find ways to better support African American basketball student-athletes in academic pursuits and in attaining college degrees. There is evidence that this is certainly possible. When I was a college basketball coach at Florida International University (FIU), I was faced with players, by virtue of their prior educational experiences, and the college recruitment process, who were ill-prepared for the rigors of college academics. However by emphasizing and valuing the athlete as a student first and athlete second, I graduated 19 out of 21 players who played for me. My college coach Bob Knight at Indiana University valued us as students first and as a result, he graduated over 90 percent of the Black players who played for him. In addition, several high-profile basketball programs have successfully raised graduation rates for Black players in recent years.
However, it is important to note that creating the structures and support systems to support Black student athletes requires that we reject the negative stereotypes about Black male athletes; this is critical work, and speaks back to a system and a society that fails to reject these negative notions of Black men.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and ’90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in ’90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA. He’s now an analyst for NBA TV and a regular contributor to NBA.com.
Na’ilah Suad Nasir:
Na’ilah Suad Nasir is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Education at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Racialized Identities: Race and Achievement Among African American Youth.