African American Football Athletes' Perspectives on Institutional Integrity in College Sport

By Singer, John N. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, March 2009 | Go to article overview

African American Football Athletes' Perspectives on Institutional Integrity in College Sport


Singer, John N., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


This qualitative case study used tenets of critical race theory and a single focus group and individual interviews with 4 African American football athletes at a predominantly White institution of higher education (PWIHE) in an effort to bring the voices of this marginalized group into the dialogue on issues concerning institutional integrity in college sport. Institutional integrity involves an athletic program's actual commitment to the educational interests of college athletes as expressed through their structures, functions, and activities. Three themes emerged from the data: (a) there is a need for more African American role models in leadership positions within the athletic departments of these PWIHE; (b) there is a need for more financial support for athletes; and (c) African American athletes should be given a platform to voice concerns. These findings have implications for those educational stakeholders and researchers who are genuinely concerned with institutional integrity in college sport.

Key words: African American male athletes, college sport reform issues, critical race qualitative research, educational development

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Changes in the social, legal, and economic climate of American society and higher education during the era of the Civil Rights Movement caused many predominantly White institutions of higher education (PWIHE) to actively recruit African American students in general and African American male athletes in particular. According to Sage (2007, p. 8), the impact of World War II, the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down separate educational facilities, the massive commercialization of collegiate sports, and the desire of universities to benefit from talented African American athletes in building commercialized athletic programs resulted in more and more universities searching for talented African Americans to bolster their teams.

By the early 1960s, there was a gradual integration of these athletes into the football and basketball programs at these institutions (Wiggins, 2000). As a case in point, Paul, McGhee, and Fant (1984) discussed the integration of African American athletes into athletic programs within the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which was the last major conference to integrate its sports teams. According to the documentary The Journey of the African American Athlete (Bernstein, Farrell, Greenburg, Hutchinson, & Reid, 1996), the defining moment for African American athletes came in the fall of 1970, when a University of Southern California African American football player, Sam "Bam" Cunningham, rushed for over 200 yards in a victory over legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's all-White Alabama squad. This performance prompted Bryant to offer African American running back Wilbur Jackson an athletic scholarship to play football at the University of Alabama (an SEC school) the following year.

These PWIHE and the leadership within the athletic programs began heavily recruiting African American athletes once they realized and acknowledged that excluding them from participation in the "revenue producing" sports of basketball and football was incompatible with good financial policy (Sage, 2007). University and athletic officials could no longer ignore the potential of these athletes to contribute to winning conference and national championships in these sports, gaining public interest and support, attracting media attention, and securing corporate sponsors for these programs. This helps to explain why the number of African American male athletes in these once-segregated big-time college sport programs (1) grew enormously in the decades and years following integration. Today, African American men constitute approximately 58% and 44% of the players in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I basketball and football programs, respectively (Lapchick, 2005). Since their arrival on these campuses, they have consistently dominated nearly every major statistical category in these sports and have won a disproportionate share of the player-of-the-year awards (Harris, 2000) while leading their teams to the NCAA basketball tournament and bowl championship series games in football. …

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