Arthur Ashe and the next generation of student athletes – Sports Scholars - Higher Education

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Arthur Ashe and the next generation of student athletes – Sports Scholars


by Richard E. Lapchick

With all the attention that we have finally come to pay to
Arthur Ashe as a pioneering professional athlete and
humanitarian it is easy to forget that Ashe was first an
incredible college student-athlete at the University of California
Los Angeles in the 1960s.

There has surely been progress on the issue of race in the
three decades since he left UCLA. However, I believe that no
problem is greater today at our institutions of higher education
than the racial issue. We are far from fulfilling Arthur Ashe’s
dream for college sport. In 1988 Ashe said, “When bright young
minds can’t afford college, America pays the price.” He saw
college sport as a vehicle to afford young people the
opportunity to get an education while competing as student
athletes. Moreover, he wanted those same young people to
have the opportunity to coach and administer college sport
after their playing careers ended.

There were twenty-four openings for a head coach in
Division I after the 1996 college football season. Only one
African American was hired–at New Mexico State. That came
after the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for high school prospects to
boycott colleges with poor records for hiring people of color.
While college basketball has done better, hiring practices for
the rest of college sport are scandalous. Fewer than 4 percent of
all college head coaches are African American. Fewer than 5
percent of all athletic directors, their assistants and associate
directors are African American. If you are Hispanic, Asian or
Native American, you are not even on the radar screen for those

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The potential of African American student athletes to
graduate is seriously compromised by the fact that so few
staff, faculty and other students on campus look like them.
They have to feel less welcome than white students on our

Many expect African American student athletes who play
basketball and football to do poorly academically. If they meet
such expectations for failure, many assume they were dreaming
about the NBA and NFL. But a poor academic experience is
hardly limited to those sports.

Every year, a list of the fifty schools with the worst
graduation rates for African American male and
female athletes in track and field is published by
Emerge magazine. The results of the forthcoming
study, due out in June, are frightening. To dodge the
list for men’s track, a college merely had to have a
graduation rate of 21 percent. Forty-two of the fifty
schools did not have a single African American male
athlete graduate through four entering classes.

Nineteen of the fifty schools on the list for
women’s track did not graduate even one African American
female athlete over four successive recruiting years. To elude
the study’s list in basketball, a college merely had to have a
graduation rate of 18 percent. Twenty-three of the fifty
schools did not graduate a single African American athlete
though four straight classes!

The greatest tragedy, of course, is that these numbers
reflect other racial issues on our campuses. The
percentage of African American faculty is stagnating and
remains lower than the percentage of head coaches; the
proportion of African American administrators is below
that of athletic directors and their assistants.

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As bad as the graduation rates for male and female
African American student athletes are, they exceed the
graduation rate for both male and female African American
students in general.

Most of American’s campuses remain enclaves that
preserve white privilege. The vast majority of students,
faculty and administrators on our campuses are white;
other than the rare Martin Luther King center or boulevards,
nearly all buildings and streets are named after white

These facts sadly demonstrate the force of racial
problems at American colleges and show the profound
difficulty for African Americans and other minorities to
secure the assurances that were made to them. Sport
continues to open our eyes to other necessary lessons in
life. What will sport get as a grade in the report card of life?
Arthur Ashe overcame all of these factors and more to
excel in all aspects of his life. In 1991, he told a Sports
Illustrated writer that “Racism can’t be overcome. It will be
there for the rest of your life. You have to figure out how to
deal with it. Racism is not an excuse to not do the best you

Someday Arthur Ashe’s daughter, Camera, will go to
college. Will we as a society have removed those obstacles so
Camera and her classmates will have equal opportunity to
achieve all of their dreams? Or will they have to figure out
“how to deal with it?”

Camera’s father’s hope for America cannot be achieved
until we acknowledge the intensity of our racial dilemma
both in and out of sport. Will we be able to celebrate
Arthur’s dream? Camera–all of our
children–cannot afford for us to delay a frontal
assault on racism. It is their futures that we must
all work to ensure and protect.

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