Let’s Also Be Mad, and Not Solely Mesmerized by March Madness - Higher Education
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Let’s Also Be Mad, and Not Solely Mesmerized by March Madness

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by Ronald W. Whitaker, II and Adriel A. Hilton


It’s back! Countless Americans will be glued to the television over the next three weeks to see what school will be the last one standing. If you somehow do not know what we are talking about, we are referring to March Madness, the NCAA Tournament to determine big-time college basketball’s national champion. Yes, it is time for the brackets and the buzzer beaters to begin.

In addition, there will be countless debates from the barbershop to the boardroom around this year’s most intriguing tournament topics. Can Villanova repeat? Will this be the year that Gonzaga finally reaches the Final Four? Will fabulous freshman Lonzo Ball be able to lead UCLA back to its dynasty? Will a No. 16 seed finally be able to beat a No. 1 seed? Who will be this year’s Cinderella team to make a long run in the tournament? And what will be the tournament’s most memorable moments?

But we argue that, instead of solely being mesmerized by March Madness, we should also be concerned about the pervasive inequalities that exist within NCAA Division I revenue-generating collegiate athletics, especially as it pertains to Black male athletes.

A 2016 report conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports,” adds substance to this concern. For example, the report argued that, “Problems as pervasive as the underrepresentation of Black men in the undergraduate student population at predominantly white universities, their overrepresentation on revenue-generating NCAA Division I sports teams, and their comparatively lower six-year graduation rates warrant a multidimensional response from various stakeholders.”

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Despite the strong evidence about pervasive inequalities that exist within collegiate athletics, for the majority of Americans who will watch March Madness, their sole attention will be on the tournament’s thrills, chills and buzzer beaters. But where is the outrage about academic scandals, ethical violations and poor leadership that exist within collegiate athletics? Where is the outrage over the problematic graduation rates of Black male student-athletes?

Moreover, beyond these challenges, there is also the pervasive stereotyping of Black male student-athletes. Far too often, Black male student-athletes are celebrated for the exploits on the court, but scorned on the campuses they represent. Unfortunately, these men are rarely viewed as “real students” or scholars, but rather they are still perceived as “dumb jocks” with superior athletic talent whose primary job is to increase the “bottom line” of collegiate revenue sports.

The aforementioned is an issue that renowned sociologist and scholar activist Harry Edwards has been arguing for more than 50 years. For example, in his classic text The Revolt of the Black Athlete, Edwards asserted in 1969:

“For the black athlete in the predominately white school was and is first foremost, and sometimes only, an athletic commodity. He is constantly reminded of this one fact, sometimes subtly and informally, at other times harshly and overtly, but at all times unequivocally. The black athlete is expected to “sleep, eat, and drink” athletics. His basketball, football, or baseball (depending upon the season) is to be his closest companion, his best friend, and in a very real sense, the symbol and object of his religious concern.”

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Data offered in the Penn study and longstanding arguments by scholars such as Edwards leads us to examine an additional area of concern, the discourse around exploitation in revenue collegiate sports.

There are opposing views regarding the perceived exploitation of Black male collegiate athletes. For example, Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), consistently defends the integrity of college athletics. In the PBS documentary, Money and March Madness, Emmert maintained that male collegiate athletes (those who compete in revenue-producing sports) are not being exploited, because they have access to the best collegiate institutions in the world, coaches and trainers. Emmert further insisted that the athletes, who are not lucky enough to play professional sports, still have an opportunity to be successful in life.

However, those that advocate for equitable practice render a different account. Specifically, they highlighted the fact that participants in revenue-producing sports are disproportionately African-American and these students assist in garnering enormous profits. Regarding these profits, a Forbes report disclosed the real economic impact of the basketball tournament’s Final Four.

We need to focus attention on inequalities and racist stereotypes that are prevalent and pernicious to Black male student-athletes. It’s time for a courageous conversation to occur around ways to rectify these offenses (many of which are offered in the Penn report). Failure to do so only reinforces historical notions that the Black male body is to be used as instruments to build wealth in a world in which he is still disenfranchised.

Dr. Ronald W. Whitaker II is an assistant professor of education at Cabrini University, director of district and school relations, and co-director of the Center for Urban Education, Equity, and Improvement. Dr. Adriel A. Hilton is director of the Extended Campus, Myrtle Beach Metropolitan at Webster University.

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