Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Constructing Academic Inadequacy

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Constructing Academic Inadequacy

Article excerpt

African American Athletes' Stories of Schooling

Derek, [1] a 20-year-old African American football player, sits in class and secretly wishes his fellow players were not in the same class with him. Antone, a teammate, gets up in the morning and struggles with the decision of whether or not to attend class. After a breakfast conversation with a group of four teammates, he decides to go back up to his room to play video games with the others. Going to class can wait for another day--his teachers don't care if he's there or not, he thinks, and his coach won't really take him out of the game even if he finds out he cut class. Malik, a prep-school senior, comes to campus for his recruiting visit and is both depressed and relieved to hear from the team members who entertain him for the weekend that school will be "no problem" because he will have "easy" teachers who are "handpicked" in advance, and that all of his educational choices and requirements will be "taken care of" for him by advisors.

Stories such as these reveal pivotal moments and challenges in the schooling of some African American athletes, especially those in "bigtime," revenue-producing football programs. Over the years, the tremendous amount of attention devoted to the subject of male intercollegiate student-athletes who do not perform academically at the same level as their non-athlete peers has addressed a problem that has threatened to "undermine the integrity of higher education" (Knight Foundation, 1991, p. vii.) Especially troubling to many has been the academic performance of some African American football and basketball players at the highest levels of intercollegiate competition: scholarship recipients at NCAA Division I, revenue-producing schools. In the 80s, studies showed that as a group these student-athletes were the least prepared for college (lowest high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores), had the lowest GPAs in college, the highest tendency to "cluster" in easy courses in easy majors, and were least likely to graduate compared to all student-athletes (American Institutes for Research, 1988, 1989; Case, Greer, & Brown, 1987; Eitzen, 1987; Sack, 1987/88; Spivey & Jones, 1975). Even now, black student-athletes are, as a group, still at the bottom of all measures of academic success: the problems noted in earlier decades have persisted into the 90s. For example, in a discussion of 1993 NCAA Division I graduation rates, Siegel (1994) noted that 57% of white football players graduated in six years, whereas the rate for African American football players was only 36%. 1995 graduation rate data for Division I student-athletes who enrolled in 1988 show that the overall rate was 57%, but the rate for black male student-athletes was only 41% ("Year in Review," 1996). Most recently, Division I data show that the 1998 graduation rate for all student-athletes was 57%, 60% for white male football players, and only 42% for black male football players (NCAA, 1999).

Although plenty of such objective data prove that the concern about some black student-athletes' lack of academic achievement is well grounded, we still have little to guide the development of enduring remedies. Two main perspectives have informed the discussions of this problem. The "deficit" perspective (Irvine, 1990) has emphasized the deficiency of African American athletes compared to other groups. Many authors writing with this point of view have made important contributions to the study of academics and student-athletes, but their treatment of African American athletes is limited in that it generally leaves the impression that the poor performance is primarily their fault. As Payne (1989) noted in a discussion of school dropouts and marginal academic achievers,

A stress on the psychological problems of dropouts, their family problems, and their educational weaknesses diverts attention from the possibility that dropouts are offering a critique of schooling . …

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