The pervasive image of the unmotivated athlete

Samuel Ellison

            Last week, Blaire Fenniman wrote a column delving into the unearned benefits to which a select group of student athletes are privileged as a result of their poor habits-cheating, lack of motivation, fatigue, etc. To a certain extent, Fenniman begins to extrapolate an egregious crime that we allow student-athletes across the country to commit in exchange for their athletic prowess. This response is largely corroborated by the repercussions emanating from the unveiling of a paragraph-long paper turned in by a University of North Carolina basketball player; subsequently, the player was granted an A- for his final grade.

            Certainly, anyone can acknowledge the three-fold preposterousness of this situation. First, a student believed that a paragraph-long essay was acceptable to submit; second, a professor and department allowed such a travesty to receive a passing grade; third, a university supported these actions to conceal in silence the lie that the University of North Carolina and hundreds of colleges across the nation continue to tell-that student-athletes are just as adequately prepared as the rest of the student body. 

             Fenniman describes the ability to skate by as an “unearned benefit.”  This phenomenon is the furthest possible scenario from a benefit.  It is a crippling disadvantage. 

             In a way, there is a generalization cast across the identity of all student-athletes, who may rightfully take offense to the claim that they have an unearned benefit. But there is a certain group that is disproportionally relevant to this discussion.

            As evidenced by the aftermath of Richard Sherman’s outburst in January, where he was pegged as an unintelligent and egotistical athlete, ranting about his stellar performance, the country responded with a social media firestorm. However, the tone of the response advances and problematizes a distinctive narrative of athletes-black athletes in particular-that dehumanizes them, robs them of the prospects of intelligence and worst of all creates the cop-out of blaming them for their respective positions. Thus, we must first and foremost deconstruct the image of the student-athlete whose image is not just lazy, but black and lazy. As Fenniman referenced, it is not all student-athletes who fit this particular bill, but it is a select group who has been brutally stigmatized and exploited by a system that refuses to acknowledge the realities facing them.

            Looking at the NCAA’s revenue-generating sports, basketball and football, ultimately leading to the NBA and NFL, there is a striking trend through each level, with a surplus of black athletes who are by and large plucked from low-income communities, lacking the intellectual preparation to handle the rigor of an elite college education. Some graduate, some do not. Some ascend to professional status, and some enter the workforce. Some leave college with a degree, and some leave college with the myth of a degree. 

            This myth of a degree is exactly what many student-athletes have become accustomed to, hiding in departments such as the one at UNC, cheating one’s way to an A and subsequently crystallizing the damaged image and stereotypes that American societal narratives expect of them. I do not seek to deny the existence and the pernicious influence of such behavior. Instead, I seek to extrapolate the reality that we do not expect anything different from them, as it is a surprise when student-athletes exceed the expectations laid at their feet. 

            Without hesitation and without any remorse, this country continues to advance a toxic predisposition to engage in victim-blaming of people who have been neglected by the systems that were supposed to help them flourish. One can only imagine that a similar scenario plays out in high school, middle school and elementary school. Parents, teachers, administrators and coaches finding themselves overwhelmed by the mammoth-sized achievement gap plaguing many students, whose only outlet was their athletic dexterity and not their intellectual ability.  Accordingly, how can anyone expect the opposite of cheating and breezing by when the odds are stacked against them, especially when colleges overruled by the NCAA continue to reap the fiscal benefits of their effort. 

            The “privilege of having their grades delivered on a silver platter,” is a byproduct of a system that excuses these transgressions. It is a result of an organizing body that fails to recognize that “one and done” does not equate to an education. It is the assumption of a free education clashing with the reality from Fenniman’s article, referencing the sheer lack of motivation from student-athletes. 

             Imagine the encumbrance of performing at a high-level in one’s sport combined with the stinging truth of being unprepared for a Villanova education on top of the fact that one’s classmates and professors peg that person for the body and not the mind. Believe it or not, these assumptions are damaging to the psyche.

            Student-athletes, and again, particularly black student-athletes, are not bestowed with the privilege of being normal. They are constantly spotlighted, which allows non-student-athletes-who are often guilty of the same missteps referenced previously-to detract unfriendly eyes and gargantuan expectations. Never mind that the designation of student-athlete is often a discreet code for the mirrored reality. Never mind the ballooning salaries of coaches and administrators who earn their incomes off the backs of athletes who get no piece of the pie. 

            The NCAA continues to broadcast and disseminate the false authenticity of statistics, demonstrated by this headline reading “Division 1 Student-Athletes Make The Grade.” The first line of the article released in October of 2013 states, “Division I student-athletes who entered college in 2006 earned their degrees at a rate of 82 percent – the highest ever.” Without a doubt, improvement is improvement, but this analysis stands without the nuance needed to truly analyze the fact that a student-athlete’s educational trajectory and degrees are marred with an asterisk. Although the graduation rates for student-athletes and non-student-athletes are roughly constant, the same NCAA report fails to advertise the 20 and 19 percent disparities between black and white players competing on basketball and football teams respectively. Sadly, the data for other sports is not particularly hopeful either.

            Shaun Harper, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and executive director of Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education said, “Perhaps nowhere in higher education is the disenfranchisement of black male students more insidious than in college athletics.” It becomes difficult to argue with this assertion as Harper found that 96.1 percent of these NCAA Division I colleges and universities graduated black male student-athletes at rates lower than student-athletes overall.

            As a black male student-athlete myself, I am well aware of the expectations and stereotypes surrounding my position, and I am well aware of the thousands of student-athletes who are working incredibly hard to disprove the negative typecasting that surrounds us. Nevertheless, my case and thousands of others are not the problem at stake. There is no dignity and truth in a system that continues to ignore these findings. There is no validity in blaming student-athletes for the cyclical carelessness of their school systems and there is no unearned benefit in lagging behind.