Following my senior year in 2007, I was courted by over 13 division one programs including Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Michigan State. I visited many of the schools, shook the hands and bathed in the praise shown to me by everybody from the usher at local church all the way up to the head coaches of these schools whose salary was well in six figures. The recurring theme at many of these universities was academics was almost an afterthought. I was shown the football facilities and got to hang with the players who showed me a good time to persuade me to join their ranks. Before I continue my critique of this “athlete first, student sort of” model perpetuated by most universities, this method works. It absolutely works. The typical 18-year-old kid from the city can be swayed by these things and understandably so. I was offered money to “go to the mall” on several school visits. I refused them all but that led me to see the process of college football recruiting and more importantly the commoditization of the athletes that are vital cogs in the machine.
I chose Penn State for many reasons, but primarily because the first place I was shown was the academic facilities. There was an opportunity for me to sit down and map out possible majors that I was interested in. The “football above all else” culture that I had grown weary of was not perpetuated there. I spoke with my parents, prayed about it and made my choice. I arrived at Penn State University in the summer of 2007. I was kid. I was excited. I swore I was ready. Straight away I was overwhelmed by the amount of work that I was faced with. Each freshman student athlete was mandated to 3 hours of study hall per night. Tutors were present to help student athletes should that be required. I am fortunate to have went to a university that placed a value on education. Penn State ranked number one in African-American graduation rate during my tenure and has been in the 90th percentile ever since. I was fortunate to go to a university that prioritized education. I made All-Conference Academics team for the Big Ten Conference and I graduated with two degrees. I worked hard. I was one of the lucky ones.
There are many other “student-athletes” (I use the term student loosely) who went to schools that viewed educating these mostly black young men as an afterthought. Most of these schools are concerned with making profit and in order to make profit you need your employees healthy and in close proximity to the workplace, which in this sense is the University. The problem is while these unpaid “employees” generate billions of dollars a year collectively that they don’t see a dime of. More often than not the academic pursuit of the black student athlete isn’t something that is bragged about on ESPN. The few universities who invest in their student athletes’ education are never celebrated.
This begs the question as to why doesn’t anybody care about education of our young black men? The majority of these young men believe they are going to the NFL, and that is a possibility. However, the numbers show that out of over one million high school football players only 1.6 percent of them will reach the NFL. The average NFL tenure is 3 years. This means that a degree in accounting is more valuable than chasing an NFL contract. By no means is this an indictment of every collegiate football program however, there is a huge opportunity to educate and better these young men and women before they return to their respective home towns. There is an opportunity to gain literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in education and this must be utilized.
We need to reshape the culture of education in our universities particularly among our black student athletes. We need them to be the leaders. We need them to be the cornerstones of our society. We need them to be fathers. For the few who are fortunate enough to make it to the NFL, I encourage you to get all the compensation you have earned. But for the over 98% of black student athletes who will make a career out of something other than athletics we need them to understand their impact on the next generation. We need them to go to the school that will not make them a mere expendable commodity in the NCAA billion-dollar machine. We need them to demand from these schools adequate time and opportunity to pursue whatever academic interest the wish regardless of how it fits around a football or basketball schedule. The system must be dismantled and reconfigured. The time is now.