Texas A&M researcher explores impact of race and sport on education
It is no secret that Black athletes have dominated college sports programs across the country. The concern for Dr. John Singer is what does and does not happen off the fields and courts.
Singer, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, researches the cultures and practices of big-time college sport programs at historically White colleges and universities. His focus is learning more about the impact of these programs on educational experiences, opportunities and outcomes of Black male athletes.
Singer grew up in a predominantly Black small town and played sports in high school. In college, at a historically White institution, he worked as an academic advisor and mentor to Black athletes. After serving three years in that mentorship role, Singer knew he had to find a way to provide a platform – via his research – for the voice of a group of college students that has been missing from the dialogue.
“This [big-time college sport] system was not structurally designed to create, or more accurately maximize, opportunities for Black male athletes to reach their potential as students,” said Singer. “Black male athletes are recruited and provided athletic ‘scholarships’ to attend some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education, but are too often not afforded the opportunity to tap into the vast resources these institutions have to offer all students.”
Singer identified Black male athletes at a major historically White institution of higher education with a big-time athletics department to share their stories.
The athletes described ways in which racism affected their educational experiences as Black males. They expressed feelings that their educational interests were being ignored in favor of the economic interests of those who manage big-time college sport.
The athletes told Singer they felt the term “student athlete” was not an accurate description of who they were and “athlete student” was more appropriate. They blamed the expectations and tremendous time demands their participation in various sports activities placed on them.
Singer agreed, saying the college sports system pushes athletes toward an athletic identity and discourages the development of other identities.
“One athlete discussed his first day in an intensive academic summer bridge program designed to help transition his teammates and him from high school to college. His head football coach told them that academics come first while holding up two fingers and football comes second while holding up one finger,” said Singer. “This practice among coaches of sending such athletics-centered messages to their athletes is pretty common.”
Singer also found athletic departments at historically White colleges and universities create cultures of low academic expectations for Black athletes, stereotyping them as “dumb jocks” and trouble makers.
Several athletes also expressed concern about differential treatment. They told Singer they have experienced advisors scheduling Black athletes for classes they do not want or need while letting White athletes take classes they desire that move them toward graduation.
However, participating in collegiate sport is not always a negative experience. One athlete Singer spoke with discussed how he used football to overcome a learning disability.
“He used the sport of football and learning the schemes in the playbook to help overcome dyslexia and figure out how he learned best. This learning in the context of his sport became transferable to his learning in the classroom and other contexts,” said Singer.
Other athletes expressed similar experiences, saying their participation in collegiate sport gave them strong social network ties and relationships to build career opportunities while giving them access to historically White institutions of higher education. Their participation also helped establish a system for organizing, preparing, problem-solving and making life decisions.
Opportunities for reform
In talking with the collegiate athletes, Singer addressed the potential for reform. He hoped, by sharing their experiences, he could improve the future of other Black athletes.
One of the key messages shared by the athletes was that they want to be included in discussions around matters related to their education and college sport reform. They believe a key to change is increasing racial and cultural diversity in leadership and other professional positions throughout athletics and the broader university.
“Higher education and college sport leaders need to be open and honest about the oppressive nature and hypocrisy of the collegiate sport system and have the courage to take action to address issues related to this,” said Singer.
Singer also expressed the importance of starting the conversation earlier in the students’ academic career, even as early as middle school. He said many of the educational challenges Black male athletes face start during their early schooling.
“Given that sport is a microcosm of society and has become an integral part of the educational experiences of students, school leaders and administrators should utilize organized school sport as an important teaching and learning space,” said Singer. “These educational stakeholders should critically engage Black male athletes, and other students, in discussions on the purpose of education, what it means to them and how issues pertaining to racism might affect their educational development.”
However, Singer said the full responsibility does not fall on the shoulders of those stakeholders.
“These athletes must also hold themselves accountable for their education and holistic development. Education is an activist pursuit that Black athletes must ensure takes precedence and priority over all else.”
Read more about Singer’s research in Urban Education.
Learn more about Singer’s latest book focused on this research from Harvard Education Press.
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