I went to college at The University of Kentucky, a school with a long history of racism, and a love of black men who dribble basketballs. I don’t hate my alma mater, but I don’t love them either. Their inability to realize that black men can be students and professors in addition to athletes has always left me frustrated. The entire seven years during which I earned two bachelors degrees and two masters degrees at the institution, I never had one single black professor (they usually and lazily claim that they can’t find any qualified minorities). All the while, nearly every basketball player came straight from “Brotherland.”
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Kentucky made news recently with the shocking announcement that five, yes five, of their star players are jumping the broom and heading to the NCAA. Even I had expected that only two or three would leave this year. But I was pleasantly surprised to hear the announcement, since most players aren’t crazy enough to leave for the NBA unless they are projected to be first round lottery picks. I assume the players know what they are doing.
I’ve written articles critical of Kentucky coach John Calipari in the past. His lack of sincere commitment to academic achievement is a blatant reminder of how the term “student athlete” is nothing more than a hoax for the billion dollar sweatshop known as the NCAA. But on this matter, I must give Calipari some credit for being a realist and showing that he genuinely wants to do what’s best for his players. After realizing that each of his top five players were projected to be first round picks in the NBA lottery, Calipari told them to leave. He could have played with their heads like a lot of coaches would have done, but he did what he felt was best for the players and their families, so I must give credit where credit is due.
While it might seem surprising that a professor (me) would recommend players leaving college early for the NBA, the reasoning is simple: most college basketball players are not in school to get an education and they are not encouraged by the institutions to make academics their top priority. Most athletes in revenue-generating sports are hired guns, brought in to keep university athletic programs profitable. Players in revenue-generating sports who put aside sports in favor of academics are usually punished, and it is implicitly understood that your job as an athlete is more important than anything you could ever do in the classroom. John Calipari was not hired by The University of Kentucky to enhance the academic experience of his players and make sure they graduate. He was hired to WIN. If he were not a winner, he’d be fired, even if every single player on his team were a Rhodes Scholar.
The truth is that many black basketball players come from difficult family situations. Half of them come from poverty, so the financial realities in their households can be daunting. While the coach is earning millions and buying private jets with his money, some of the players have to find out that their mothers are being evicted or that their siblings can’t afford school clothes. Given that many black families don’t have a male in the home, many young men are expected to be providers for their households, which is difficult to do if the NCAA says you can’t even get a job. Any man who sees his loved ones suffering and has the ability to immediately alleviate that suffering can’t be blamed for doing what is necessary to help those he cares about. Period.
A player who wants an education can go get the money from the NBA and pay his own tuition during the off-season. The fallacy that a young man has to put millions of dollars on the shelf in exchange for a few thousand dollars of free tuition is a bit silly. The truth is that many students go to college so they can make more money anyway (I know I did and no one has the right to judge me for it). So, why wouldn’t any of us leave school in exchange for a multi-million dollar contract?
We must acknowledge, however, that all black men should still find the time to be educated. As I wrote in a recent article about the low black male college graduation rate, the truth is that even if you earn millions in the NBA, without a good education, you may likely end up poor anyway. Just ask former Kentucky basketball star Antoine Walker, who left Kentucky after his sophomore year, earned over $100 million dollars in the NBA and is now broke. This is not to hate on Antoine, but we know that he is not alone in the number of talented athletes whose poor decisions put them in some terribly embarrassing places. So, my approval of athletes leaving for the NBA early does not, in any way, disconnect us from the necessity of getting educated. There’s nothing more powerful than an educated black man with visibility, wealth and a conscientious commitment to black leadership. Just ask Myron Rolle, the Rhodes Scholar who has now declared for the NFL draft.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the Athlete Liberation and Academic Reform Movement (ALARM). To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.