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Redefine the Finish Line: Overemphasis on athletic success may limit academic pursuits for African American children

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Dr. Louis Harrison Jr. remembers well when his young son was one of the fastest kids on his youth football team. It isn’t fatherly pride that keeps the memory fresh for Harrison. It’s the messages he heard directed at his son.

“People would say to him, ‘Now, don’t forget me when you make it to the pros,’” Harrison says. “And I’d think, ‘This is a kid here. You’re talking about the pros?’”

Louis Harrison Jr.
Dr. Louis Harrison Jr., a faculty member in the College of Education and the Center for African and African American Studies, studies how race influences physical activity and sports participation.

Harrison was more interested in seeing his son aim for college, but the experience raised questions for him. Why were African American kids given the message that they can become professional athletes when so few can? And how does this message limit the possibilities they pursue?

An associate professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, Harrison is seeking to answer and better understand those questions. His work focuses on how race influences physical activity and sports participation.

“I’ve always wanted to try to get people who thought they were going to be athletes to kind of back up and get a bigger perspective,” he says, “because for most poor African Americans, it’s not sport that’s going to bring them out of poverty. It’s education.”

This isn’t always apparent to young people who look to the stratospheric success of athletes (and, similarly, entertainers) for role models. Contributing to this is the overrepresentation of African Americans in a few key sports, particularly basketball, football and track and field.

While African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, they make up 78 percent of the National Basketball Association, 67 percent of the National Football League and 63 percent of the Women’s National Basketball Association. Their dominance in these widely televised and popular sports has caused a stereotype to emerge in American culture: African Americans are athletically superior but intellectually inferior to whites.

“A lot of people have studied the physical characteristics that would give African Americans an advantage in those sports,” Harrison says, “but I thought there are a lot of social and psychological influences that we really haven’t taken a close look at.”

One of those influences may be how many African Americans have absorbed the stereotype themselves, so that athletics have become key to their racial identity.

Harrison looks at a process called “becoming black” or “nigresence,” which suggests that the individuals develop a racial identity over time. For African Americans, that identity includes recognizing they are a minority, and that while minorities may experience far less overt racism than they may have a few decades ago, subtle racism still exists.

African Americans make up 78 percent of the National Basketball Association, 67 percent of the National Football League and 63 percent of the Women's National Basketball Association. They hold very few other position in the sports industry, such as athletic director or head coach.African American athletes are among the few who seem above that racism and where the possibility of success seems limitless.

“In a society where being African American evokes so many negative stereotypes,” Harrison says, “it is easy to fathom why there would be fervent identification with a positive stereotype.”

Further, while immersion in academics may be seen as “acting white,” immersion in sports holds the possibility of being able to play by one’s own rules. Harrison points to basketball star Allen Iverson who sports braids and tattoos, recorded a profanity-laden rap album and is openly critical of his former team. His behavior might be unacceptable in most work environments, but as a gifted athlete, Iverson makes in excess of $10 million a year in salary and endorsements.

Because many African American youth see themselves as a potential Iverson, they limit the types of sports they participate in. While this may partly explain the overrepresentation of blacks in particular sports, it means they may exclude participation in sports they don’t deem appropriate.

It also makes them more likely to channel their energies into sports and away from school.

“While striving to achieve ‘hoop dreams,’” Harrison says, “many young people are having ‘academic nightmares.’”

The same hasn’t proven to be true for white athletes. Harrison conducted a study with white college students who had been high school athletes to understand the messages they’d received about race and athletics. Overwhelmingly, they reported that they were told academics needed to come before sports.

One participant, Ken, summed it up as such: “…my parents kept me grounded. They would always get on me about my grades and say well you know hopefully you play college football someday. If you really truly work, but you got to keep your grades up so you can have other options.”

One of the great needs of young African American males is to hear the message and understand the reality that for the vast majority, a sports preoccupation will not lead to an occupation.  Dr. Louis Harrison Jr.

The white students also reported they were often steered away from particular sports because they were told that they couldn’t compete with African Americans. Once again, the stereotype was apparent. White students were told to go to college. African American students were told they’d excel in sports.

Harrison points out that the stereotype doesn’t disappear for African Americans talented enough to play college-level sports. In fact, the assumption is often made that the athletes aren’t as intelligent as the other students in the classroom.

Bev Kearney, women’s track coach at The University of Texas at Austin who has led her team to six NCAA national championships and 19 league titles, agrees that college athletes face tough stereotyping. She says her African American athletes are often labeled when they walk into a classroom.

“People have assumptions about the athletes,” she says. “They think they have special privileges, that they’re not the greatest of students. They think they’re only there for athletics or that they think of themselves as above everyone else. None of those things are true.”

Kearney maintains that a lot of progress has been made in talking about issues related to women, but that people are still uncomfortable talking about race. She believes it is time for that to change.

Harrison hopes his research will help. He’s worked closely with African American college athletes over the years, and he’s seen them stereotype themselves far too often.

“Part of what I do is let these athletes know that this is a stereotype, and yes, you will be stereotyped, but you don’t have to buy into it,” he says. “I always tell athletes and other students that to me, as sophisticated as athletics are today, you can’t be a dumb athlete.

“One of the exercises I do when there are athletes in my class is to ask them to stand up and explain what they have to do on a certain play. When you understand all the things they have to react to, all the formations they have to remember, all they have to be able to recognize and understand, it’s clear you can’t handle that kind of pressure without intelligence.”

According to the U.S. Census, there were 119,000 African American engineers, 45,000 African American physicians and 48,000 lawyers in 2000.As important as it is to work with college-level athletes, Harrison puts more of his focus on changing what it means to grow up African American and the messages kids get at an early age from parents and peers, on the playing field and in the classroom. Harrison is a Baptist minister, and he sees his research as an extension of his ministry.

“I see ministry as meeting needs,” he says, “and one of the great needs of young African American males is to hear the message and understand the reality that for the vast majority, a sports preoccupation will not lead to an occupation.”

Critical for him is how teachers are trained and prepared for working with children from different cultures. A lot of teachers may hold stereotypes themselves and make matters worse by telling kids that maybe they’ll become a professional athlete.

Harrison says teachers and students might start with a statistics lesson: According to the NCAA, about 1 million students play high school level football. Less then 6 percent go on to play NCAA football, and only 2 percent of those who play in the NCAA go on to the pros. In 2006, 255 players were chosen in the National Football League draft.

In other words, of all the high school players suiting up for a Friday night on the football field, less than one-tenth of one percent of them will end up in the pros. In men’s and women’s basketball, the odds are even slimmer.

Harrison says that television may continue to show young people examples of athletic superstardom, but the classroom needs to put the emphasis back on more attainable versions of success.

“On the educational side, you have to try to tell students the truth and to give them the actual numbers,” he says. “My purpose is not to extinguish the dreams but to fan the academic flames so that when the dream is over, reality is not so harsh.”

He wants to see teachers give kids tools to use in their lives, and one of those tools is to understand there are many viable options for good careers outside of sports.

In getting that message across, Harrison may find he has help from his son. The former youth football player graduated from Louisiana State University in 2002. Today he teaches school in New Orleans.

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS: Christina Murrey

On the banner: Special thanks to the
UT Women’s Track and Field Team

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  Updated 2007 January 22
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