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Diversifying Through Football

For anyone who's interested about Patriot League athletics, this article from "Inside Higher Ed" is a must-read not only because Lehigh athletics are mentioned fairly prominently, but it talks about something I've talked about before - how football is, whether people like it or not, a vital way for college campuses to be diverse.

Data drawn from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual survey of graduation rates, analyzed by Inside Higher Ed, show that scholarship athletes make up at least 20 percent of the full-time black male undergraduates at 96 of the nearly 330 colleges that play sports in Division I, the NCAA’s top competitive level. At 46 of those colleges, according to the data, which are from 2005-6, at least a third of the black male population play a sport. And at 31 one of them, football players alone make up at least a quarter of the black undergraduate men.

The trend is most evident at [a type] of institution...where the proportions of black athletes are highest is private institutions, mostly those that have selective admission standards and are small compared to other sports powers, yet still try to compete with the big boys. This includes institutions like Northwestern University (where 43 of the 163 full-time black male undergraduates are athletes), Lehigh (31 of 78), Rice (47 of 99) and Wake Forest (69 of 128) Universities, and the University of Tulsa (68 of 95), among others. (One other group of selective private institutions that competes in Division I — those in the Ivy League — are excluded from the data below because the NCAA collects information only about scholarship athletes, and the Ivies do not award sports scholarships. The same is true of the U.S. military academies.)

Basically, of the 78 male African-American students on campus, 31 of them are athletes in Lehigh's case (26 of whom are members of the football team). Here's the numbers of other al--sport Patriot League schools:

Bucknell 17/52 (31%), 11 on football team
Colgate 31/66 (47%), 17 on football team
Holy Cross 23/53 (43%), 18 on football team
Lafayette 30/71 (42%), 26 on football team
Lehigh 31/78 (40%), 26 on football team

Compare these numbers to associate members of Patriot League football:

Fordham 50/141 (35%), 34 on football team
Georgetown 35/188 (19%), 21 on football team

And of other private Eastern FCS schools with football scholarships:

Villanova 50/115 (43%), 32 on football team
Richmond 23/64 (36%), 20 on football team

And comparing against comparable FBS schools:

Duke 53/244 (22%), 46 on football team
Vanderbilt 61/201 (30%), 49 on football team

In every case, over 20% of the African-American student body is involved in athletics (and if you take out Duke and Georgetown - two teams with national championships in men's basketball - the number shoots up to 30%), and nearly all of them are on the football team. It doesn't matter if they're offering scholarships, they're competing in the ACC or the Patriot League: they all face the same challenges. (Although, oddly, in this piece they lump together Northwestern and Lehigh even though Lehigh has academic standards to uphold, financial aid restrictions to apply, and have additional spending and scholarship restrictions as a part of FCS football - they are in no way similar in terms of athletics spending.)

I am all for Lehigh (and all Patriot League schools, for that matter) to do a better job of diversifying their campuses with the best and brightest, including African-Americans. The numbers paint a picture of Patriot League campuses that have a small percentage of African-Americans on it. Why? Well, cost could be a major issue - the average yearly tuition at a school like Lehigh is $46,960. Compare that to less than $10,000 for an in-state freshman at Penn State.

But the activists interviewed for the article don't seem to really be interested tackling the spiraling costs of higher education. In fact, some of the solutions the article floats are simply scary:

But some advocates for minority students are troubled when they look at the numbers, which they say suggest that some colleges are more interested in recruiting black men with exceptional athletic talent than they are mere hard-working students. “It’s absolutely shameful that these institutions obviously could do such a great job of expending the effort to recruit black male athletes but can’t seem to get their arms around the recruitment of other black male students,” says Shaun R. Harper, an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

“At a lot of institutions,” he says, “there’s a very limited expenditure of effort” toward recruiting black students generally, there’s no strategy, there are no real goals that are written down. Yet when it comes to the recruitment of black male athletes, all those things are in place. It’s hard not to think that that’s because they’re interested in winning, so they’re going to put forth the effort to recruit students who will enable them to win.”

Adds Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, an education think tank: “If a very large percentage of your students of color are athletes, what that suggests is that you’re using your athletics program as a proxy for achieving your diversity goals. That’s different from an institution that both pursues its athletics goals and also tries to recruit and retain significant numbers of students of color who are aren’t athletes.”

...

In his paper last year, he wrote that the the “NCAA should consider a policy requiring that racial representation on any sports team should minimally correspond to a certain percentage of undergraduate student enrollments at the institution. For example, if black males comprise four percent of the undergraduate students on a campus, their representation on an intercollegiate sports team should not be permitted to exceed a certain percentage (e.g., 20 percent, which would be five times more than black men in the general student population). The introduction of this policy will surely compel university admissions officers to more aggressively recruit black male students who are not brought to the institution to play sports.”

The folks who talk about this want to achieve the goal that everybody wants - improved diversity across the whole campus. But some of the arguments that they use are ludicrous. I seriously doubt Patriot League football coach sets out to list in numbers the African-American students they are to recruit. I think coaches are setting out to get the best possible athletes for their teams, and making the necessary efforts to get those students. If there was ever any process that is blind to race, the quest for athletic talent is that. If a kid is purple, can handle the academics and can throw the ball 70 yards downfield across his body, schools are going to recruit this kid.

If anything, the rest of admissions need to approach the coaches to tell them how they have been successful recruiting minority students. Let me get this straight - the football team, in general across institutions, has been the most successful section of the school in being diverse, so these guys therefore are telling us that schools need to guard against it being a proxy for campus diversity? If the word "football" and "athletics" were taken out of the discussion, you get the impression these same people would be falling over to praise the schools about their diversity. Talk about logic being backwards.

Proposals like the one above - to mandate that sports teams need to reflect the student population on campus - would not only quite literally destroy athletics at a school like Lehigh, it would have the perverse effect of making the campus even less diverse than it is now.

More importantly, it obscures some great findings that need to be trumpeted: that minority students in athletics graduate at a higher rate than non-athletes:

“In our case, black male student athletes graduate at a higher rate than our black male students,” said David Shi, president of Furman University, where 46 of the 77 full-time black male undergraduates in 2005-6 were athletes, and fully half played football. “We have never had a problem with the academic performance of our football players in general, much less our African-American football players. We’ve had the good fortune of being able to recruit some very high performing student athletes and not feel worried that somehow we’re compromising the integrity of the institution.”

Minority enrollment is something that clearly can and should be improved. What would be the best way to do this? The answer to that is easy: scholarships. Schools should offer many and diverse scholarships from everything from football to cello. I'm no professional, but to me a great way to improve diversity is to offer free education.

People who are studying these trends ought to be looking to football as an example on how to diversify college campuses, not demonizing it.

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