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There is more to life than sports: getting brothers to take the road less traveled

Based on recent statistics released during the Jackie Robinson celebration
on “Nightline,” 70 percent of the players in the National Football League
are African American, 80 percent in the National Basketball Association,
and 19 percent in Major League Baseball. That’s fewer than 1,400 Black
men on professional contract.

With the average career less than five
why do so many Black males aspire to “the dream” of professional
sports? Five years of formally researching this issue, playing football
from Pop Warner to college, and interviewing thousands of people from
all walks of life have led me to some conclusions.
The channeling of Black males athletically is a complex situation.
The real reason so many brothers are trying to make it to “the show” is
validation. Sure, the money is good and so is the limelight to some, but
allow me to ask some questions. In what ways does American society
applaud Black male achievement? At our institutions, beginning in
kindergarten all the way to the university, how is the Black male
encouraged to make it in life? If you answered sports to both questions,
you are being honest with yourself. By not validating the cerebral or
thinking Black male, we as a society have set up the unhappy paradox
of the Black athletic hero.

This is what John Hoberman discusses in his recent book, Darwin’s
Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth
of Race. As Hoberman states: “The disappearance of the Black soldier
and aviator as public figures in American life after 1945 was significant,
because it denied an officially sanctioned modern status to Black men
who might otherwise have come to be identified with intellectual
mastery and technological competence in the eyes of the nation.”

In simpler terms, as Michael Eric Dyson discusses in Race Rules,
Black bodies are “in” now, especially in the context of sports and media
advertising. This is why many of our Black males involved in academics
and athletics today know more about Barry Bonds than stocks and
bonds. It also sets up a paradigm for many years of dreaming with their
eyes closed, while injecting themselves with sport novocaine.

A recent study released by the Center for the Study of Sport in
Society found that 66 percent of African American male high school
seniors believed their first jobs would be as a professional athlete. I see
the channeling process as fifty people trying to get in a Yugo at one
time–you can’t do it.

There is Always Hope: Education

I wish Paul Robeson (Rutgers), Arthur Ashe (UCLA), and Jerome
“Brud” Holland (Cornell) were alive today so they could mentor many
of our young men striving to be the best in only one thing. While the
media’s images of Black men often has us as brutes, buffoons, and
bucks, Robeson’s, Ashe’s, and Holland’s lives would tell our young
brothers to shake off these negative images and be the best at all they

Their example would tell them to not pay attention and internalize
the limited mass media construction that they see every day of
themselves: athletes, entertainers and criminals. Their example would
tell them to look around because they have examples of Black men
performing well at professions other than sports, doing well for
themselves and their families. There are ten times as many lawyers,
doctors, professors, administrators, civil service jobs as professional

Their example would also tell them to look to their peers
have performed at both education and sport and received degrees from
the same institutions that got blood, sweat, and tears from them. Jacque
Vaughn, Juwan Howard, Tim Duncan, Brevin Knight, Alonzo
Mourning, Grant Hill, Warrick Dunn, Wally Richardson come to mind,
but there are many others.

Above all, Robeson, Ashe, and Holland would tell Black males that
the ideology of not performing in the classroom because “school is not
cool” is a formula that could blow up in your face at any moment in life.

As a young African American scholar, my validation came while
listening to Michael Eric Dyson’s keynote last year at the National
Black Student Conference. He was wearing sneakers with a suit, and
discussed Black identity and the importance of rap and hip hop to our
culture. We need more lives to play out like Robeson (athlete, lawyer,
speaker, civil rights activist), Ashe (tennis champion, author,
commentator, lecturer) and Holland (athlete, professor, coach,
administrator and writer). These men saw value in combining
academic excellence with athletic prowess.

A road less traveled by far too many African
American males today.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
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A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics