National Student-Athlete Day Gives Top Billing to Academic Achievement
Just as March Madness draws to a close, student athletes will again be the center of national attention, this time for their academic and civic achievement.
On April 6, campuses around the country will observe National Student-Athlete Day for the 14th consecutive year. Some in college sports say the need is growing to encourage student athletes to keep their eyes on their studies as well as on the ball, especially African American student athletes.
Statistics show that the graduation rate for Black student athletes of both genders continues to lag behind their peers. The trend is particularly pronounced in basketball, where the gap in graduation rates between Black female athletes and their White peers is widening.
The graduation rate for Black female athletes playing Division I basketball in the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) is roughly 52 percent, compared to 69 percent for their White peers, a gap of 17 percent. The graduation rate for Black males in Division I basketball is 34 percent, compared to 56 percent for White males, a gap of 22 percent.
Though the academic performance of Black student athletes lags behind others, they are graduating at a rate exceeding that of Black students who do not compete in sports. This supports the view that athletics can be an important instrument through which the overall academic performance of Black students can be improved.
“I think it is important to recognize the ‘student’ in student athlete,” says Warde J. Manuel, associate athletic director at the University of Michigan. “That is really what [National Student-Athlete] Day is about.” He and his colleagues observe the day by taking athletes from the university into local middle schools to talk about what it really takes to be a college athlete. Manuel, a former college football player, says his goal is to impress upon the younger students that athletics is a means to access educational opportunity, not the other way around.
“It is a harder message for them to hear because it is not proclaimed as much as how much [money] these men make when they leave school early,” he says, referring to the small number of male athletes who leave school early to pursue professional careers. Compared to those who “chase a dollar,” Manuel says the students who stick it out to earn a degree are generally better off over the long haul.
Another African American academic adviser, who asked for anonymity, says his institution observes National Student-Athlete Day and, while he sees it as beneficial to students who already are achieving academically, he doesn’t see the emphasis on scholarship penetrating the psyches of the most elite African American athletes.
“These kids come into school and they’ve got their eyes on the prize,” — to play professionally — he says. Performing academically is not their priority. Citing Harvard University scholar James Coleman, the academic adviser says the blasé attitude these youngsters have toward academics starts long before they get to college. It begins with their families, their peers, life experience and deficient K-12 experiences.
While the academic adviser says he has nothing against National Student-Athlete Day, he cautions that until eligibility requirements are raised and institutions at the elementary, secondary and postsecondary levels are forced to hold student athletes to a higher academic standard, the academic problems of Black student athletes will persist.
“Right now, the coaches accept the minimum standard as the standard,” he says. “My experience for any student is that they give you what you ask of them. It works in sports, so why shouldn’t it be applied to academics as well?”
Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society and a founder of National Student-Athlete Day, agrees that the problems facing African American student athletes are deep and tied to this country’s history of racial inequality. While there is no question that the problem must be addressed at all levels of society, he says he believes activities like those associated with National Student-Athlete Day help to improve the negative imagery of Black athletes that dominates the national psyche.
“It is important to celebrate the phenomenal things that athletes do that don’t get into the media,” Lapchick says.
“Athletes are being unfairly portrayed by the media. The number who are crossing social norms by taking drugs or committing crimes is so small. But the attention they get is having a particularly bad impact on stereotypes. White people no longer say things that are politically incorrect about Black people. Now we say it about our athletes.”
The steady barrage of negative imagery even undercuts some student athletes’ desire to achieve academically, Lapchick says. “They think, ‘I’m supposed to be dumb, so why study?’ “
Recognizing student athletes who value scholarship and citizenship provides another image to embrace for students who are struggling, he says.
Suzi Katz, national coordinator for National Student-Athlete Day, says the overall campaign goal is to motivate more students to do right by their communities and themselves.
Campuses seeking more information about National Student-Athlete Day should contact Katz at 407/823-5243.
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