Message(s) to Young Black Men…What are We Telling Them?

black men

I’ve been super busy with work the past few months and have fallen down on my blogging. I’ve begged and begged friends and colleagues with whom I have incredibly rich discussions about education to write something for the blog. Finally, someone agreed. I am happy to present a perspective I can never present: that of a black male. So much of what I say is gendered and representative of a private undergraduate and graduate experience. I am tired of hearing my own thoughts so I am extremely grateful to share with you those of someone else. 

My guest writer today is a 27 year old black male who attended a public college and was a Division I football player. Below, he shares his thoughts on being a black male, the type of ‘encouragement’ we give our young men, and the implicit and explicit messages about what we value in, and expect of, black athletes.

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“Don’t be a statistic.”

What does that mean and why do people say that?

I feel like I heard that phrase a million times while I was growing up.

Still, I hate this phrase. Instead of telling our young people what not to do, we need to be telling them what to do. Instead of showing them examples of what awful fates they could end up with, we need to be showing them what opportunities they have and how those opportunities could be realized. Mostly though, we must stop giving ourselves and our children a low expectation.

“Don’t be part of the 53 percent who don’t graduate…”

Why is graduating from high school something we celebrate particularly in the black community and even more particularly for black males as being such a significant life achievement?

I have 5 siblings. We all graduated from high school. We all got lots of cards from family and friends and a lot of those cards had cash enclosed as graduation gifts. My parents confiscated every one of those cards from every one of our graduations.

My father, “Congratulations, you did what you were supposed to do. You’re not blowing all this money for doing what you were supposed to do, I’ll get you a cookie.”

Moral of the story, raise the damn bar. Children do not expect things of themselves on their own. Our expectations come from seeds planted by caretakers, educators and other significant adult roles.

At some point though, we grow into adulthood and we must take responsibility for our own expectations.

“Of course you play football, 46 percent of Division I football players are black…”

During my junior year of high school, I began to be recruited by Division I colleges to play football. The recruiting process is crazy. The school sends you a bunch of letters. Then they call your phone, your mother’s phone, your next door neighbor’s phone. Then they visit. Through this whole process they tell you how great you are and how much they want you to go to their school. Honestly, if you are a black athlete, that part is crap for most schools. They want you to play on their team. That is very different than they want you to go to their school. The expectations of white student athletes are different. I saw first-hand how different they were when I sat in on a recruiting visit of one of my high school friends. A very well-known school sent an assistant coach to watch me play a game. My teammate had a very impressive game and caught the coach’s eye.

My head coach and I were approached by the assistant coach who asked the player’s name and that afternoon, I went with the visiting coach to my teammate’s house. I would say that at least half of their conversation revolved around not football, but different education programs that school offered. The coach gave unprompted and detailed insight into how that kid could plan his academic goals around the demands of being a part of that institution’s football program.

At that point, I had over a dozen coaches and scouts visit my house, including this assistant coach. Not one of them spoke about my academic future until my father pressed the topic. Even then, it was usually vague and concise. Call me jaded, but I really don’t think that is coincidental. It was clear that the expectation for me was to be an athlete-student. Not a student-athlete. I was to perform on the field and if that translated to the classroom, good for me. I was fortunate to have supportive and involved parents throughout my upbringing. This was the first time I really understood though, that my college education was going to be determined by my expectations.

“Three out of five black Division I college football players will not graduate…”

As a student-athlete at a Division I FBS college, I had to make it my own expectation to succeed outside of football. The requirements for eligibility are low.

The NCAA requires a Division I athlete to maintain a GPA of 1.8 through the beginning of the athlete’s second year, a GPA of 1.9 by year three and A GPA of 2.0 by year four. While completing 40 percent of a degree requirement by the end of year two and 80 percent completion by the end of year four (a student-athlete is given five years of academic eligibility).

Please do not get me wrong, being a student-athlete is difficult. To be even remotely successful takes an incredible amount of time management, focus and sacrifice. Not every student has several hours of meetings and practice and has to go to class wrapped in ice. But 1.9?

I can’t tell you how many times I had a professor or classmate, or even coaches tell me how noble it was that I attended every class. They meant well, but that makes me angry. This is the expectation of our young men. Throw us a parade for getting through high school and then pat us on the back for continuing our education.

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Football has long been over for me. My education, however, is something I can carry with me not only as a tool to help me fulfill my dreams and responsibilities to my family and society, but as a reminder that I am on the right side of the numbers because I decided to be.

We need to stop telling our young people to not be a statistic. We need to give them the tools and expectations to be the right kind.

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