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Collegiate Athletics Hightlights

Collegiate Athletics Hightlights

Collegiate athletics have presented a grueling playing field for student athletes of color over the past 15 years. And sometimes, just when it seems that players of color have gotten used to the terrain, new issues of equity explode on the field, making the footing even more precarious. The following 15 issues — and the personalities involved with them — have been at the forefront of that battle. While there is much scandalous behavior in collegiate sports, we have intentionally overlooked the general subject of scandals because they are never-ending — from point shaving, to criminal behavior, to academic cheating, and beyond. But because many of the issues discussed here overlap, they cannot be ranked. So pay no attention to the order in which they are presented.

1) Championship Coaches
 African American coaches have led teams to championships in numerous collegiate sports over the past 15 years. Among the luminaries in the NCAA’s Division I, high-profile, revenue-producing sports are: national championship men’s basketball coaches John Thompson of Georgetown University, Nolan Richardson of the University of Arkansas, and Tubby Smith of the University of Kentucky; and women’s basketball coach Carolyn Peck of Purdue University.

2) Becoming One Voice
 While access to the collegiate coaching profession for Blacks remains a major problem, the founding of the Black Coaches Association in 1987 paid some early dividends. In 1988, 11 new African American basketball coaches were hired by Division I schools, growing their ranks by more than 25 percent. And because of pressure from the association, the NCAA also announced that it would be awarding 20 scholarships — 10 to minorities and 10 to women — as part of an effort to increase minority opportunities in sports coaching and administration. Another BCA protest in 1993 got the NCAA to agree to further increase minority opportunities.

3) Eligibility Battles: Where, When, and Who Can Play
There has been a persistent stream of rules and regulations — many of them disproportionately impacting student athletes of color — governing the level of competition at which they can participate, how often they can participate, and whether or not they can participate. In the mid-1980s, the NCAA passed Proposition 48, which tied athletic participation for Division I freshmen to high school grade-point averages and standardized test score results. Early in 1999, a U.S. Third Circuit Court judge — citing the NCAA’s own reports and memos — ruled that the regulations were illegal because they had an “unjustified impact on African Americans.” The case is currently under appeal.

4) Who’s Graduating? Now Everybody Knows
The Student Right-to-Know Act of 1990 requires an institution that participates in any student financial assistance program under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and awards athletically-related student aid to provide the graduation rates of student athletes to potential student athletes and their parents, coaches, and high school counselors. Until Sen. Bill Bradley and Reps. Edolphus Towns and Tom McMillan championed this cause, colleges and universities were loath to reveal these statistics to their potential recruits — and with good reason, as is pointed out on the Black Issues 15th Anniversary Wall of Shame (see pg. ??). But the most disappointing revelation was — and is — the poor rate attained by HBCUs.

5) Money, Money, Who’s Got the Money?
 Certainly not the student athletes. Except for the summer, college sports today appear on television just about every day — especially since the proliferation of sports networks like ESPN2, Fox Sports, and Pay Per View programming. Then there are the local cable sports channels like MSG in New York City and HTS in Washington, D.C. In fact, CBS paid the NCAA more than $1.7 billion for the rights to televise the men’s Division I basketball championship tournament over an eight-year period that ends in 2002. But NCAA regulations prevent the student athletes who participate in these contests from receiving any of the millions of dollars that go to their institutions. Although there are conversations in certain corners of the collegiate athletic world about financially compensating student athletes, that possibility remains a long way off. Additionally, the HBCU share of this basketball bonanza has been — and remains — paltry since the tournament only invites one team from each of the two historically Black conferences. The further a team progresses in the tournament, the more money it receives from the television revenue. Only one HBCU tournament — coach Ron Mitchell’s 1997 Coppin State College squad — has advanced to the second round of the 64-team.

6) Going Pro Early
 It started in 1969 when Spencer Haywood left the University of Detroit before completing his athletic eligibility and, a few years later, Moses Malone skipped college altogether — both to begin careers in the NBA. Since then, in both basketball and football, it’s been like a snowball rolling down a winter mountainside, growing in size and gaining momentum. And when teams like perennial contender Duke start losing freshmen to the NBA Draft, even after finishing just one victory shy of the national championship, you can’t help but wonder if this is a bellwether of things to come.

 7) Picking Up the Tab: Title IX Race-Gender Conflict
 It is unclear whether or not this was intended, but as higher education institutions were forced to offer more female athletic scholarships, many of them offered fewer male athletic scholarships — “to stay within their budgets,” was the most common refrain. Said Alex Wood, head football coach at James Madison University and vice president of the Black Coaches Association, in 1997:
“The race versus gender issue is very real. In football a large number of players are Black. So when you start cutting scholarships, you not only take away an opportunity to play, you take an opportunity to go to school.” Additionally, even including the recent interest in basketball and soccer, women’s athletics do not produce anywhere near the revenue produced by men’s basketball and football. The reality of the situation is that sports dominated by Black males are funding athletic scholarships that mostly go to White women who play sports — like volleyball and soccer — that were added to meet Title IX requirements.

8) A League of Their Own: The WNBA
Now women college basketball players, just like their male counterparts, can aspire to a professional sports career — thanks in large part to the exposure generated by the growth of women’s sports as a result of Title IX. While it doesn’t yet pay near the salaries the men make, the WNBA is helping women — especially the young Black women who are the majority of the league’s players — earn substantial amounts of money, primarily from endorsements.

9) The Not-So-Wide World of Sports
 African Americans tend to dominate basketball, track and field, and football. Their presence in other sports arenas, however, is extremely limited. For example, an April 17, 1997, Black Issues report noted that experts estimated that of the 4,000 Black female college athletes that year, 97 percent of them either participated in basketball or track and field. And the lack of African Americans in college baseball has also caused some concern. Black Issues reported on Sept. 15, 1988, that young Blacks interested in pursuing baseball careers tend to go straight into the minor leagues, where they usually get signing bonuses to go along with their salaries — which are generally meager. Young White baseball players, however, take the college route — where they can get the national television exposure from playing in the College World Series and may consequently garner a better major league contract.

10) The Tale Before the Tiger: The Growth of Black Golf
 Prior to the appearance of Tiger Woods, Blacks were already playing golf in increasing numbers. In a 1991 Black Issues article, experts explained that in 1980, Blacks participated in golf at a rate of 18.1 Black duffers for every 1,000 Black Americans. By 1988, the rate had grown to 72.9 per 1,000. By the mid- 1990s, Blacks played prominent roles on national championship teams — Andy Walker helping Pepperdine University win the men’s NCAA title in 1997. Additionally, Bill Dickey’s National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association has been instrumental in getting Blacks into the game and providing college scholarship money. But as African American participation in golf increases at traditionally White institutions, the golf programs at HBCUs are finding themselves in an awkward position. This year, the Bethune-Cookman College men’s team won this year’s National Minority College Golf Championship with a team of White foreigners. Organizers have since amended the eligibility requirements so that in the future, all competing teams must be from an HBCU and field a squad composed mostly of minorities.

11) Make the Jump: HBCUs Moving On Up
 With their athletic departments looking to enhance the quality of competition for their sports teams, more and more HBCUs are moving up to Division I status. “The exposure a school gets in Division I is not only good for athletics, but good for the academic side,” William Price, the athletics director for Norfolk State University, said in 1997 after the institution had been competing at that level for a year. And Dennis Thomas, the athletics director at Hampton University, concurred: “We’re striving to have our athletics program match up with our academic program. You can have an outstanding academic institution and also have an excellent sports program. That’s where we want to go.” And in a reversal of fortune, some schools — such as Benedict and Stillman colleges — have reintroduced football to their athlete programs.

12) “God Bless the Child Who’s Got His Own”: The Re-emergence of Black Bowl Classics
 One way that HBCUs have used athletics to gain exposure — and reap financial windfalls — has been with the proliferation of college football classic bowl games. In January 1991, Black Issues reported that there were 27 Black college classic games — some of them decades old. And over a 15-year period from 1975 to 1989, the Bayou Classic generated accumulated earnings in excess of $140 million for the institutions involved. Also, the NCAA added the Black-conference dominated Heritage Bowl to its winter bowl-games season in 1991. The Heritage Bowl pits a team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) against a team from the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

13) Rah-Rah: Cheers, Jeers, and Malicious Mascots
 A solution to Confederate flag-waving was found in  1997 when the University of Mississippi banned individuals from bringing sticks to all sporting events. Eliminating the sticks made it more difficult to wave flags. The controversy surrounding the Fiesta Bowl’s location in Arizona — a state that at the time refused to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — spoke sermons about the racial sensitivity of Notre Dame and West Virginia, the two universities that participated in the protested 1989 contest. John Thompson and his Georgetown Hoyas got a rude welcome from the coach’s alma mater during a game at Providence University when the crowd repeatedly referred to Patrick Ewing as an “ape.” And although schools like St. John’s, Miami of Ohio, Stanford, Marquette, Eastern Michigan, and other universities and colleges have gotten rid of their Native American nicknames and mascots, the list is not complete. The Florida Legislature recently passed a resolution making Seminoles the state sanctioned name of Florida State University. And despite the objection of most of its faculty, in 1998, the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign regents refused to abandon the use of the institution’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek. In an interesting little aside to this mascot controversy, this year, for the first time, an African American in leprechaun garb will be the Fighting Irish mascot.

14) Untimely Departures
The high-profile deaths of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball player who was a second pick in the NBA draft, and Hank Gathers, who played basketball at Loyola Marymount University, are representative of the numerous student athletes who lost their lives during college.

15) A Recognition of Excellence: The Arthur Ashe Sports Scholars Awards
Named to honor the memory of the African American tennis great who championed the cause of academic excellence for minorities, the awards were created in 1991 by Black Issues In Higher Education to acknowledge scholar-athletes of color who excel in the classroom as well as on the field. This year, there were 348 of them, including the 1999 male and female Athletes of the Year — Western Kentucky University basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Jr. and University of Wisconsin soccer player Shannon Brown. Unfortunately, many athletic departments around the country — including many at HBCUs — still refuse to participate in this show of appreciation for their scholar athletes.                               

—Compiled by Eric St. John

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