If we want black males to achieve at academics, we must encourage and support those yearnings as much as we do their athletic aspirations.
Twenty-nine black male students from Sherman High School (a pseudonym) in Atlanta pose for pictures toting baseball caps that have college insignia. Parents and other relatives sit alongside them at the press table. Local and regional newspapers provide full-page spreads of these students and the record-breaking number from this predominantly black high school to be offered college football scholarships.
Although the students had already decided where they planned to attend college, they had yet to publicly acknowledge it. They relished the moment by shifting multiple baseball caps on the table. Eventually, each player selects a college by putting the respective baseball cap on his head to the applause of parents, relatives, coaches, teachers, and the media. This ritual--National Signing Day--takes place annually on the first Wednesday in February in almost every city and town in the United States. It is the first day that high school football players can sign national letters of intent to play at a university.
Another black male student who attended a different high school in the same public school district also was recruited to play college football. This student earned a 3.9 GPA, graduated in the top 5% of his class, and was a Governor's Honors and Georgia Merit Scholar. Rather than discussing his future as a college athlete, he highlights the contradictory messages that black male students receive about athletics and education:
There are no rewards for academics. If you get an athletic scholarship, on signing day they have a ceremony and all the media show up. But if you get an academic scholarship, nobody knows about it except the people you tell. Every kid wants encouragement for whatever they do. But you get it more with sports than with academics (Naddra, 2011).
This student recognizes that black males' athletic success, and not their academic success, is what the media, schools, and U.S. society at large promote and value. His parents were appalled that only two of the numerous universities that recruited their son inquired about his academic goals--Harvard University and Florida International University.
Policy makers, educators, and administrators must think more deeply about how societal perceptions of black males as "natural" athletes, rather than intelligent students, adversely influences how educators view black males academically. This athletic/academic paradox plays out every day in classrooms, schools, communities, and U.S. society. This paradox is rooted deeply in American history and remains an integral aspect of U.S. culture and society's perceptions of and expectations for black males. This paradox, springing from the perceived lack of opportunities that poor black families and communities face in traditional or academic careers, undermines the academic achievement of black male students by inflating athletic careers as a viable future.
But the athletic/academic paradox can be instructive in developing new models for black male academic excellence. Society and the educational community should cultivate black male students' academic talents as vigorously as they prepare black males to become athletes. But this requires thinking in new and creative ways about how we envision, expect, and cultivate academic excellence among all black male K-12 students. Our approach emanates from our roles as researchers who have spent years thinking about and investigating black students' educational experiences in U.S. society.
The authors are researchers and former high school and college football players. Similar to many of the young black males whose plight has become the focus of countless newspaper and journal articles, reports, symposia, and conferences, we also found ourselves trying to understand the conflicting messages about black males, students, and athletes. …