Less Ball, More Education

Generations of black youth are being lost to futile dreams of becoming professional athletes. It’s time to liberate the black community from its unhealthy and unhelpful overemphasis on sports.

Growing up in Atlanta the emphasis in my home and church community, outside of a relationship with the God, was education. In fact, since slavery the black community has valued education as the means of economic empowerment and political liberation. Education is so powerful that slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write for hundreds of years in this country. Many of us had parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles drill these words into our heads: “get an education.” Sadly, many black communities have been sabotaged with the deception of short-term gratification so that the empowerment brought through education is no longer valued. In the place of education has emerged an emphasis on entertainment and sports as the primary means of upward social mobility that many find troubling. In particular, an overemphasis on sports has dire consequences for black males.

In 2010, Dr. Krystal Beamon, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote a fascinating article explaining the phenomena of black males being herded into sports. In “Are Sports Overemphasized in the Socialization Process of African American Males?,” Dr. Beamon explains that there has been elevated levels of sports socialization in the family, neighborhood, and media in the black community creating an overrepresentation of black males in certain sports. One of the results of this overemphasis, according to Beamon, is that black males may face consequences that are distinctly different from those who are not socialized as intensively toward athletics, such as lower levels of academic achievement, higher expectations for professional sports careers as a means to upward mobility, and lower levels of career maturity. In other words, the sports emphasis is putting black males at a disadvantage later on in the marketplace.

Much research has demonstrated that, compared to their white counterparts, black males are socialized by family and community members deliberately into sports, limiting their exposure to other hobbies, like reading, and to non-sports related role models early in life. In some families, for example, parents are more interested in basketball practice than homework completion or good grades. The overemphasis also continues to feed stereotypes about black men as athletes, and these stereotypes are exacerbated as the mass media limits projections of black males as working in professional, non-athletic, or non-entertainment vocations.

A recent NCAA study reports that high school athletes have a 0.03 percent chance of playing in the NBA and a 0.08 percent change of playing in the NFL. With these odds, many black males are being inadvertently sabotaged if their families and communities socialize them into sports as a way to become successful and escape poverty in the absence of forming them morally and educationally.

What is needed are new role models and peers that reinforce the virtues that form and shape character and equip young men to be successful in the marketplace, whether they play sports or not. If black males are to be protected from the sabotage of hopelessness, the pursuit of accelerated upward mobility, materialism, and so on, individual Christians have to get more involved in the lives of black youth to nurture a broader imagination for the purpose of one’s life beyond being famous, making money, and achieving physical prowess.

If education is not emphasized as the means of success, if learning is not celebrated, if the exploration of multiple hobbies and opportunities are not encouraged, we may be inadvertently setting a trap for self-destruction, because the consequences of not being prepared to participate in the global marketplace are serious.

Photo illustration by Mike O’Dowd.

About the author, Anthony B. Bradley

Dr. Anthony B. Bradley is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King’s College in New York City and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Black and Tired and Liberating Black Theology. Visit his website, The Institute, and follow him on Twitter @drantbradley.
  1. Interesting perspective, and of course I agree. But let’s be realistic about the learning styles of many of our young people. Some kids learn better verbally, others with the written word, and still others through hands-on, tactile activities. Yet our public school systems try to force all kids into a uniform box. Consequently, we see many bright kids who based on their abilities to compose eloquent raps or design complex football or basketball plays show a great aptitude for literature or mathematics, but those natural skills are not being drawn out of them the right way because we ignore their unique learning language. Until we figure out a way to address the core issues of learning styles and the diverse teaching approaches needed to reach different students, we will continue to have dysfunctional and failing schools in America.

  2. I agree as well. @ Reginald, Although I agree to a certain extent, I tend to believe that if the value of education was on the same level as the value of sports, then being concern about learning styles would be a non-issue.

    • You’re right, Cortez. We spend our money on the things we care about the most. And I think that’s one of the things we need to grapple with as we decide what’s most important. This is a very deep hole to climb our way out of and I think Anthony Bradley is correct that it has to start with individual Christians (and all concerned citizens) stepping in to do what they can.

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