Race, Education and the Glory of Athletics

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By Cami Crawford

Berhane Andeberhan breathes soccer. Growing up, he wished he could play every minute of every day. “I became the best homework finisher in Eritrea because I wanted to go out and play,” said Andeberhan. His parents dictated that he couldn’t play unless his homework was done and when he got older, there was more homework and less daylight. But his diligence in the schoolroom was always a priority because in Eritrea, Africa, it was very hard to get an education.

Andeberhan was lucky. He had a good life in Africa, modest compared to those of Americans, but manageable. His father was a schoolteacher and taught him the importance of education, so when he was accepted into UCLA on an academic scholarship, he was overjoyed. All his studying and sacrifices for his education counted for something.

Andeberhan has since played for the 1971 NCAA soccer championship, taught as a professor of Microbiology and coached up to the collegiate and national levels. The only thing that has remained a constant is his love for the game of soccer.

It never crossed his mind, despite his skill on the pitch, that he would make a living through soccer. He knew that the likelihood of making a good financial life as an athlete, even if he had played at the professional level, was very slim. So instead, he chose a career in microbiology and left soccer as a hobby. He’d seen some of his father’s student’s back home become starry-eyed from the possibilities of athletic fame and fail to upkeep their education. He also saw them lose everything when their athletic careers ended a few years later and they lacked the education necessary to get financially stable jobs.

It was a mistake that he was sure never to make and one that he advises his athletes to avoid; even now, as they are faced with a society preoccupied with the glory of athletics.

“Even if you become a professional player, it’s for a short time,” said Andeberhan. “You have to get your education.”

Athletics has long been touted as the best way out of a poor or underserved community and money is the driving factor. But the truth is that playing collegiate or professional sports is exceedingly more difficult than it’s popularly believed. Statistics from the NCAA show that less than five percent of high school athletes make it to the collegiate level. Only about three percent make it to the professional level, which is about the number of people admitted into MENSA.

Earl Smith, sociologist and author of “Race, Sport and the American Dream,” doesn’t believe sports are the answer for kids of disadvantaged beginnings. Smith believes the current structure of athletics in educational institutions is corrupted and that the goals of educational institutions have been sacrificed to sports, especially in under-resourced inner-city schools. Thus, he advocates promoting education as the primary objective for kids working to overcome poverty and limiting sports to a secondary component.

“Give young men and women an opportunity to develop holistically, in moderation, and with realistic expectations for their college and professional lives,” wrote Smith.

Andeberhan agrees. “The desire to make money [through scholarships] is unfortunate,” said Andeberhan. “It’s almost like the education is an inconvenience or an afterthought. It should be the main thing! Everybody should be educated and use it to enrich their life.”

Andeberhan is among a growing number of current and former student-athletes who are advocating to put the emphasis back on the “student” part of the word student-athlete. Like many, he believes emphasizing sports as an activity and not a lifeline is a more realistic and maybe more effective way of overcoming poverty and racial biases. After all, Andeberhan lived it.

***

In the late 1960s, Andeberhan left for school in the United States just as a civil war ignited across Eritrea, then a colony of Ethiopia. “By the time I was a junior, there was an all out independence war and my family said not even to think about coming back. Any Eritrean with an education was suspect.” So Andeberhan, armed with an Ethiopian passport and Eritrean blood, sought permanent residence in the United States, which he later received. But that was just the beginning of his battles with racism.

“Playing in college and in outside leagues, you are called names that aren’t very pleasant,” said Andeberhan. “People are always trying to get at your game. You strive to be above it and be strong enough to not drop to that mentality.”

Racial and ethnic stereotypes have surrounded professional sports for decades: Brazilians are the best soccer players; the best basketball players are black; Dominicans dominate in baseball; Asians lack athletic ability. These are all widely perpetuated stereotypes that can be immediately disproven with the slightest bit of research. But they persist nevertheless.

Now, the idea of racial dominance in professional sectors of athletics is as rampant as it’s ever been before. However it’s being talked about in a different way. In his blog, “Does Race or Ethnicity Matter in Athletics,” Dresdin Archibald wrote about how sports analysts have used race as a genetic explanation for an ethnicity’s superiority in Olympic weightlifting for years. Instead of commenting on training regimens or coaching techniques, the genetic card became a convenient dismissal of merit-based achievement. As Archibald notes, “how can one be expected to win if your genes keep betraying you?”

Beyond Olympic weightlifting, other sports have emulated this thought behavior to such an extent that it has permeated the athletes. NBA rookie Nik Stauskas spoke out about his experiences as a white player in the NBA, explaining that he felt the need to prove himself and play harder because of his race.

In October 2014, Stauskas told the Sacramento Bee, “I understand that I’m a rookie and I’m white, so people are going to attack me at all times. Just coming out there in the game, I felt it right away.” Stauskas was both praised and criticized for his comments that reignited the controversy about race in the NBA, which was still reeling after Donald Sterling’s racist comments made headlines earlier that year.

Volleyball player and president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at NYU, Vera Shulgina believes that genes and race are not a legitimate argument for athletic shortcomings. “I think a big part of it is being lazy,” said Shulgina. “I think genetics and stereotypes are an easy out and an easy way for people to excuse themselves for failure. He shouldn’t feel the need to prove himself because he’s white, he should feel the need to prove himself because he’s a rookie in the NBA.”

***

The dialogue surrounding race and sports has infiltrated the university sphere, because college is a stepping-stone to professional athletics. Prospective professional athletes are generally drafted straight out of university, so those who intend to play their sport professionally seek out university sports. Athletic scholarship opportunities, especially those in basketball and football where the majority of players are black, are glorified in disadvantaged neighborhoods as a way of getting out. They lure students to emphasize sports successes over educational successes in the hopes they become one of the lucky few scholarship recipients.

“If I didn’t get a scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Latazah Coleman, who was raised with her five siblings in Delaware by her single mother. “I would have had to go into the workforce, like maybe McDonalds, to help pay the bills.” Now on a full-ride athletic scholarship for track and field at the University of Delaware, Coleman is studying to become a social worker. She wants to help kids with a similar background get to college.

Many stories like Coleman’s or that of professional athletes such as Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Oher have been glorified in the media. It’s the story of the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks that was able to break out of the lifestyle he or she was born into because of sports. To become a collegiate athlete was the path to getting out of bad neighborhoods. But where was the talk about SAT scores and GPAs? Any talk of academic sustainability is often overshadowed by the glory of the athlete.

Smith believes athlete glorification is a developing issue that needs to be addressed. “Even the student bodies in many high schools have developed cultures that glorify sports at the expense of the scholar,” wrote Smith. “And, for those who defend this system by invoking it as a route to a college scholarship, the social science research has shown (over and over) that the chances are slim to none, especially for young women, who are often dismayed to find that even when they are talented enough to win a scholarship, it is usually a fraction of what they need.”

NYU basketball player Melissa Peng thinks that relying on athletics as a ticket out of poverty and into college or professional sports is naïve. “I don’t think athletes recognize this, but a sport can only take you so far,” Peng said. “Athletes have to recognize that they still need an education.”

Like in Andeberhan’s experience, instilling the value of education early is essential for student-athletes to understand the importance of their academic responsibilities. But education can benefit from sports and Andeberhan is a big advocate of this fact.

Jay P. Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, and Daniel H. Bowen, a post-doctoral fellow at Rice University, both believe athletics to be an essential component to a liberal education. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times published in October 2014, Greene and Bowen wrote, “Students who participate in athletics tend to fare significantly better both in school and in later life. Participating in sports, like playing in the school band or competing on the debate team, are cognitively and organizationally demanding activities that help convey self-discipline and leadership skills. This is especially true for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

America SCORES is a national program that combines soccer and poetry and is directed towards kids near the poverty line. Based on a non-competitive curriculum where learning life skills and having fun trumps winning, SCORES engages in their student-athlete’s lives as early as kindergarten. SCORES works in conjunction with schools to train teachers in the poetry and soccer curriculums and is currently working with more than 8,000 students in 14 cities. America SCORES NY runs eight programs with various schools in Harlem and Washington Heights.

The program wants to interact early so that elementary and middle school-aged kids living near the poverty line understand that their education is a tool to make change in their community and not a byproduct of playing sports. Thus, students at SCORES are required to spend an equal amount of time in the classroom writing as they do on the field playing. Every year the program holds a National Poetry Slam for its students-players and a SCORES World Cup, a fundraiser soccer tournament.

“I think that poetry does bring them together,” said Nick Basalgya, program manager of America SCORES NY. “I think without it we would miss so many sides of people and so many strengths. It challenges people to learn more.” A collegiate soccer player with an avid interest in poetry, Basalyga received a master’s degree in social work before becoming part of the SCORES team. Basalgya epitomizes the SCORES goal to learn in a holistic manner.

***

Right now, the “student-first-athlete-second” mantra is prevalent across the Division III student-athlete community, where academic scholarships are nonexistent and admission is dependent upon academic eligibility.

“They say student-athlete and in that term the student comes before the word athlete, so I think that everyone’s priorities, ideally, should be their degree and to use athletics to supplement their experience at school,” said Shulgina.

Unfortunately, recent scandals over falsified grades and questionable eligibility has shed an unfavorable light on the perceptions of student-athletes. One of the most common complaints is that student-athletes aren’t qualified to study at the university they attend. That the athlete’s only value to the university is their ability to catch a ball or run fast and education is a secondary benefit. While this may have been true in the past, modern student-athletes, like Shulniga and Peng, no longer accept that stigma as truth.

In January, former University of North Carolina athletes Devon Ramsay and Reshanda McCants filed a lawsuit against the university and the NCAA after an academic fraud scandal in 2014 cited UNC officials as having falsified classes to bolster grades and ensure student-athlete eligibility. Ramsay and McCants claim UNC failed to provide the education promised. The plaintiffs also accuse the NCAA of negligence for failing to implement sufficient systems for monitoring academic fraud.

Former St. John’s soccer player and current NYU Women’s Soccer coach Jen Leverton believes part of the problem is that students on scholarship do not want to jeopardize their aid by speaking up about education deficits. Athletes coming from poverty stricken areas usually cannot afford their educational institution without assistance and have a lot to lose if they are denied aid, so they keep quiet.

“I do believe it’s the accountability of the student-athlete to say something, but I also think that they should be in a space where they feel safe enough to say something and that it won’t be held against them if they do,” Leverton said. “I think the basis of being a student-athlete is going to college. So if you aren’t getting the education, then you shouldn’t be scared to tell someone who works for the university.”

Regardless of whether the plaintiffs win their case or not, the argument is clear: Athletes do not think their education is secondary or a byproduct of playing a collegiate sport.

And now, coaches are beginning to follow suit by prioritizing the recruitment of well-rounded athletes or those that are clearly capable of maintaining academic eligibility on their own. Coach Leverton prioritizes academics when recruiting incoming talent. “We definitely take academics very seriously because we know that’s why students come here,” she said. “If they’re not qualified enough to be here then step one is out of our hands.”

Pure talent is no longer the only qualification for athletic recruitment, but the stigma persists in disadvantaged neighborhoods like Coleman’s. “When schools started looking at me I started to say this is my ticket,” said Coleman. “I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all, but for most cases that’s one of the biggest paths out. If we’re talking about the ghetto, basketball is one of the main sports, basketball or rappin’. They’re kind of stuck in that stereotype.”

Andeberhan believes the answer to changing the stereotype is de-emphasizing the glory of winning and the monetary rewards of athletic scholarships in youth sports. “There’s so much preoccupation with winning,” said Andeberhan. “Coaches are put in the position of having to survive, which means winning now. And so the focus is on winning at any means necessary, even at the younger levels.”

“I tell parents, we are not here to win the U7 World Cup,” he joked. “There’s no such thing.”

Now an advisor to the youth national academy team in Arizona, Andeberhan is pushing his student-athletes to use sports and education together. He wants to teach kids how to become educated in a different, more holistic way or one that focuses on the total education of the student-athletes. “Sometimes winning is not the education formally, but it’s the education of sportsmanship, health, safety, and fairness.” The end goal is for student-athletes to receive a multi-faceted education that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

“Not everybody is going to be a great student,” said Andeberhan. “But everyone should be able to exercise their minds.”

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