African American Male Athletes: It’s Time to Step Up to the Plate

February was Black History Month and now it’s March, with all the hoopla of March Madness.  There is nothing new about these celebrations; they are annual events.  However, this might be a good time to address a serious issue that pertains to some of our young men. This is why I feel the need to reach out to African American male athletes and encourage them to take control of their destiny.  They must show the world that there is more to their talent than the skill of bouncing a ball on a basketball court and scoring points, or running down a football field making a touchdown.

Let me preface my concern with the fact that I love sports; always have, as both a spectator and participant.  Plus, if anyone is going to have the guts to broach the topic, without fear of being labeled a racist, I guess I’m the chosen crusader.  As a veteran educator (school counselor), still passionately engaged in school achievement and postsecondary options, and an African American who has always been very concerned with the development and destiny of athletes, I encourage you to take a moment to come out of the clouds and redirect your focus.

I am not addressing all African American athletes because there are many who have accomplished both their educational and athletic goals; but unfortunately, those numbers are not high enough.  This also does not include female athletes; because their fates have not been as negatively impaired as it has for males.

It is easy to lose sight of this tragedy because as long as you are the catalyst for the winning team, you are praised.  However, once you cannot perform, or the season is over, you are thrown under the bus.  It’s sad but true.  And the biggest crisis is the lack of interest in your educational accomplishments; by high schools, colleges and you.  Even with all the NCAA concern about college graduation rates for athletes, as well as the assumed interventions that are implemented by the institutions, African American athletes are still lagging beyond their counterparts.  You received a scholarship to play sports AND get an education.  Even the new 2015 NCAA rules aren’t developed to promote a promising collegian; just a marginal student who can play sports.

Many people ask, “Why and how does this happen?”  First it begins in the early grades.  Young children are very impressionable and many will equate a promising or successful career with an athlete.  Remember all the commercials with the kids saying, “I want to be like Michael.” And they weren’t talking about Michael Jackson.

Consumed by the athletic prowess of the players, the youngsters, especially males, devote the majority of their free time to develop the same skill.  I support developing athletic talent, but not at the expense of education.  Unfortunately, homework and other academic responsibilities are side-lined for athletics.

This continues through middle and high school; then obvious problems appear.  Weaknesses are noticed in reading, math, and other academic and cognitive areas.  Sometimes, basic life skills are lacking; for example, being unable to complete the SAT registration form with general information (name, address, date of birth).  It was disappointing to have conversations that were like talking to The Print Shop program; thinking, processing, etc.

And what happens at college, especially when it’s obvious there is not a positive correlation between the student’s ability and the rigor at the university?  Now we’re back to, “We will help you as long as you are helping us win.”  And if not, oh well, those bus tires can really hurt.  What will you do now?  Well you might get lucky and actually make that dream come true, but do your research, because very few make the Michael Jordan and Walter Payton club.  It’s always sad to hear college tutors share stories of athletes, whom they helped, with minimal academic skills, sometimes elementary level, who struggled terribly in their studies and accomplished very little; during and after college.

Before it’s too late, make a pledge to create a better future for yourself, and the younger aspiring athletes who are modeling you.  Employ the same skills that are utilized in sports; strategy, execution and team work, in your educational pursuits.  If you can successfully implement basketball and football plays, that’s analytical thinking, strategic planning and memorization.  These skills are used in education, but you haven’t been encouraged, or had the desire, to make the connection, so start now.  If you can achieve them on a basketball court or a football field, you should be applying them in your English, mathematics, science, and social studies classes.  As a counselor, I usually had to be creative when helping a student, especially an athlete, understand a study strategy with a sports analogy.

Here are suggestions to help you strategize and executive your destiny:

• Make your education a priority.  Achieve at your maximum level.

• Aim for intellectual stimulation (reading, analytical reasoning, writing).

• Improve public speaking skills.

• Be assertive and proactive in seeking academic assistance.

• Project a positive image (appearance, dress, character, behavior).

• Seek mentors or adults who can help with your achievement and career goals

. • Always strive to be better than average; do more than is expected.

• Have high expectations for yourself; if you don’t, who will?

As you redirect your focus and navigate your new path, remember to be a good role model for the younger African American males who are following your footsteps. There are endless possibilities and as we all know, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

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