College athlete graduation at Stanford
STANFORD, CA - JUNE 16: Graduating Stanford University students attend the 128th Stanford University commencement ceremony on June 16, 2019 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Liu Guanguan/China News Service/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Fixing College Athlete Education Starts With Black Students

Why this matters

Data collection and reform by the NCAA have not been effective in creating a better educational experience for Black college athletes. By enforcing equity in education and tending to the unique mental health needs of Black athletes, the NCAA can undo antiblackness within the association.

Monthly Issue College Sports 2.0

As the founding executive director of the Center for Athletes’ Rights and Equity at the University of California-Riverside, I’m often asked how sports stakeholders can devise a more equitable system for college athletes. When answering, I tend to highlight how inequities in college sports impact the Black college athlete most, particularly within education. Structural forms of antiblackness can be found within the enterprise, and they affect outcomes for those athletes – as well as outcomes for Black coaches and administrators.

It’s important to understand the distinction between antiblackness and racism. The former does not refer only to acts of racism directed at Black people. It also refers to society’s structural contempt and disregard for Blackness as well as its recurring failure to recognize Black humanity. Scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, João H. Costa Vargas, and Frank B. Wilderson III argue that antiblackness is deeply ingrained in our perceptions, laws, policies, and practices; in our colleges and universities; in our language; and in our interpretations of what it means to be human in an antiblack world.

In college sports, this helps to explain the disparities between Black college athletes and their non-Black counterparts. Structural forms of antiblackness are embedded in almost every established institution via school policies and practices, producing and reproducing inequitable experiences. Black athletes are more frequently hyper-surveilled, monitored, and controlled on their own campuses through various tools – including major clustering and placement of “class checkers” – than their non-Black counterparts. Largely because athletic personnel tend to push them toward their athletic roles at the expense of their academic goals and obligations, Black male athletes’ six-year graduation rate is 59 percent, compared to 69 percent for athletes overall, according to 2019 NCAA data. Even when it comes to physical safety and a basic sense of acceptance and belonging within their communities, Black men and women who play for Division I teams continue to protest hostile campus racial climates, including antiblack violence.

Denial Among Those With Power

Still, many athletic stakeholders – including coaches, administrators, faculty, fans, and alumni – would like to believe that Black college athletes are adequately cared for, protected, and treated fairly upon their arrival on campus. In his written testimony to the United States Senate in June 2021, NCAA President Mark Emmert said:

We are proud of the role that college sports have played in creating opportunities for our nation’s student-athletes, especially those who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to pursue higher education. Former NCAA student-athletes are more likely to be thriving in purpose, social, community, and physical well-being, and these patterns persist across NCAA division, graduation cohort, gender, and race and ethnicity.

Athletic stakeholders enact policies and engage in practices and behaviors that give the illusion of fairness, rationality, and social inclusion – but rarely, if ever, address material structures of antiblackness. At times, they may prescribe Band-Aids for symptoms such as allowing unlimited meal plans and providing multi-year scholarships for athletes. But, for the most part, they ignore the suffering of Black athletes.

For example, more than 878 institutions and 102 conferences adopted the 2016 Pledge and Commitment to Promoting Diversity and Gender Equity in Intercollegiate Athletics. This pledge has not performed to the level expected. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, in the 2020 season, there were only 14 Black head coaches across 130 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs, and only 22.7 percent of Division I men’s basketball coaches were Black in the 2019–2020 season. (Notably, football and basketball are the sports with the highest concentrations of Black athletes.) Likewise, in 2020 there were only 13 Black athletic directors in FBS programs. Through an antiblackness lens, a plausible explanation for these disparities in leadership positions is that the structural position of White leadership in athletics (above, empowered) is contingent upon the structural position of Black people (below, disempowered) – and a necessary condition for the maintenance of the social and racial order.

Marginalizing Blackness

In 2020, Emmert made a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, stating that the killing of George Floyd “laid bare the continued existence of inequality and injustice in America” and adding that the NCAA and member schools “must, therefore, commit ourselves individually and collectively to examining what we can do to make our society more just and equal.” However, the NCAA and its member schools have not yet enacted – or even developed – strategic plans to actively address the ontological and social conditions of Black athletes. Instead, schools have responded with unity patches, antiracism initiatives, and “people of color” movements, all of which ignore and make invisible antiblackness and Black suffering in athletics.

Before focusing on multiracial struggle and possibilities, we must first engage in a more comprehensive analysis and interpretation of antiblackness in college athletics. Schools that want to truly support Black athletes have an obligation to go beyond hollow, performative antiracism statements and wholeheartedly embrace an agenda that understands organizational problems in radically different ways and that engages the specificity of antiblackness as an ethical issue in athletics.

The NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), established in 2003, is an example of schools tinkering with a flawed enterprise to give the illusion of progress while avoiding the real work to address the antiblackness within it. The APR essentially provides an instant snapshot of the eligibility, retention, and graduation of scholarship athletes in team sports; it is arguably one of the most significant reform efforts to date. Teams that fall short of the APR benchmark – which predicts about a 50 percent graduation rate – are subjected to penalties such as scholarship reductions and a ban from postseason competition. APR standards place the onus on NCAA member schools to ensure that all scholarship athletes are progressing toward degrees. In addition, the standards hold head coaches more accountable for the academic success or failure of the athletes they recruit. In 2019–2020, 22 teams received penalties due to APR violations, including eight that received postseason bans.

Unfortunately, this initiative is producing the same undesirable results for Black athletes. From 2014 to 2018, for example, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) accounted for the majority of schools penalized for low APRs, despite constituting only about 6 percent of all Division I institutions. While working to identify and implement effective NCAA reform initiatives is important and necessary, it is not enough. These efforts can constrain opportunities to address the deeply rooted antiblackness that pervades college sports – and the larger society around it.

Enhancing the Quality of Academic Support

Antiblackness in higher education is inescapable and irreconcilable. College sports cannot simply be repaired. There is no restorative solution. Instead, college sports must be transformed into something else that has yet to be defined. By recognizing this, we will be better positioned to engage in more equity-focused and justice-oriented practices that explicitly account for antiblackness; that find sites of humanness, belonging, and joy for Black athletic stakeholders, both on and off campus; and that create therapeutic tools for healing.

None of this means we need to throw in the proverbial towel on college sports. Black athletes will continue to enroll in Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), and they will continue to be alluring commodities aligned with material structures of profitability for NCAA schools. That is, Black athletes will continue to help schools win games and make money. However, as they assume their role as students and athletes, we can make the enterprise more hospitable for them and mitigate their social suffering. The time is ripe to recognize what it means for Black athletes to exist as humans and to better support their campus experiences.

College sports stakeholders need to improve the quality of campus experiences and opportunities for Black athletes in two key areas: enhancing the quality of academic support to ensure that Black college athletes are better positioned for life after sport, and addressing their mental health needs to improve their overall well-being.

Questions have been raised about whether Division I Black athletes are being educationally reimbursed for their on-field labor, or if they are even receiving meaningful educations at all. The current structures of college sports make it more challenging – and perhaps less likely – for Black athletes to fully engage in high-impact educational activities and to prepare for quality school-to-career transitions. To change this dynamic, I recommend the following:

  1. Schools must collect data on the college athlete experience by race/ethnicity, gender, and type of sport. The use of evidence within athletic departments provides a unique opportunity to comprehensively study the college athlete experience, including student learning. This is not simply an academic exercise: When athletic personnel are engaged in the kind of high-quality data collection that influences their practices, they are more likely to be critically aware of the academic and personal issues that Black athletes encounter, and they are more likely to respond in meaningful, supportive, and engaging ways. A well-developed data monitoring strategy should help inform academic policies that limit academic major clustering and major choices that do not align with athletes’ academic interests and career aspirations.
  2. The NCAA and its member institutions should reduce credit hours and develop a degree-completion fund for athletes. Athletes should be permitted to take fewer than the 12 credits required during their playing seasons to allow them to better balance their academic and athletic roles. Moreover, conferences should be required to use television revenue to support academic completion for athletes who want to complete their undergraduate degrees because they did not accumulate enough credits while they were playing sports. Schools want the best out of athletes on the field and in the classroom; athletes should be given a realistic amount of time and support to excel in both areas.
  3. The NCAA and its member institutions should reconsider and redefine the National Letter of Intent (NLI). While opportunities continue to expand for students who participate in college athletics, the NLI primarily favors the college or university. It provides little protection for athletes because they are not able to negotiate the terms of their contracts. Athletes, moreover, are afforded no alternatives apart from rejecting or accepting the agreement, usually known as a contract of adhesion.

Member institutions should use a reciprocal contract (one that is mutually agreed-upon) rather than a contract of adhesion (which disproportionately benefits one side). In doing so, they can introduce terms and conditions that require all athletes to participate in high-impact educational activities. These could include first-year seminars, internships, undergraduate research projects with faculty, and writing-intensive courses. College athletics leaders should also outline how these activities will benefit college athletes. These types of activities lead to better educational experiences and subsequent outcomes, including graduation rates.

Adequately Supporting Unique Mental Health Needs

The NCAA has asserted that it has no legal responsibility to protect the health of individual college athletes or to provide a safe environment for them, and the organization has so far refused to enforce uniform health and safety standards across its member schools and divisions. At the same time, the 2015 GOALS data revealed an approximately 30 percent increase from the 2010 data in the number of athletes across divisions who self-reported mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Relatedly, roughly one third of athletes reported challenges stemming from the demands and pressures of their sports – and this finding was highest among athletes in Division I revenue sports such as football. Given these statistics, I recommend the following:

  1. The NCAA, as a governing body, should enforce mandatory health and safety standards. It is the organization’s duty to safeguard college athletes, and the NCAA can improve their health and safety by assuming a stronger leadership role. As a first step, the NCAA should penalize programs that do not comply with its protocols the same way it penalizes programs that violate amateurism rules.
  2. NCAA member schools should help athletes create and make use of informal support networks – including friends and family – as a therapeutic supplement for formal mental health counseling. Such networks have been shown to help reduce the negative effects of psychological distress among Black college students.
  3. NCAA member schools should promote and increase the representation of Black mental health practitioners on campus. The shortage of Black mental health practitioners has severe implications for all Black students needing treatment.
  4. The NCAA and its member schools should establish a system whereby independent and equity-driven experts routinely evaluate every aspect of the care that schools deliver to athletes.

It is imperative that the NCAA and its member schools embark on a self-examination and assessment, collectively and individually. Doing so will enable them to explicitly account for antiblackness and to counter the ways that antiblackness has been rendered invisible by current practices. Only then can we ensure Black athletes, who are among the most vulnerable on campus, receive adequate support and the educational experiences that they deserve.

Dr. Eddie Comeaux is a professor of higher education and founding executive director of the Center for Athletes’ Rights and Equity (CARE) at the University of California, Riverside. Comeaux has a forthcoming book titled “Organized Captivity: Control, Hyper-surveillance, and Disposability of Black Athletes in the Corporate University.”

Monthly Issue

College Sports 2.0

Last summer, NCAA president Mark Emmert openly acknowledged it was “the right time” to answer the question “if we were going to build college sports again, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?”

From education to athlete safety, labor laws to race and gender equity and beyond, this issue offers guidance for what that next iteration of American college sport ought to look like.