Rah, Rah, Rah, Sis, Boom Bah!
By Patrick F. Cannon
As an alum, I was pleased to see that Northwestern University was ranked #12 on the US News and World Report’s list of the country’s best universities. As a matter of interest, it was also ranked #25 on a list of the world’s top universities. While these rankings are gratifying, it should be noted that they reward universities that offer numerous graduate degree possibilities and carry out extensive research. It is well to remember, however, that there are many smaller schools of lower rank, particularly liberal arts colleges, which provide a comparable undergraduate degree. You may not have heard of them, since they don’t play sports as the highest level.
Northwestern does. It’s an FBS school. For the uninitiated, FBS stands for “Football Bowl Subdivision,” a designation of the NCAA for schools that belong to the conferences whose schools are eligible to play in NCAA recognized bowl games, including the one designated as the National Championship. Northwestern had a good year last year and was chosen to play in one of the lesser bowl games. Over the years, they have had a spotty record in this regard and, alas, have not gotten off to a promising start this year.
They are currently unranked among the top 25. The top ranked team, the “Crimson Tide” of the University of Alabama, is ranked #103 on the academic list. But Northwestern is at the top of another ranking – it graduates 97 percent of its football players, including 94 percent of its African-American players. Alabama’s African-American graduation rate is 56 percent. After Vanderbilt, it actually has the highest African-American graduation rate in the Southeastern Conference. The worst is Arkansas with 31 percent!
The statistics that interest me most, however, are the ones that compare the percentage of African-American football and basketball players to the percentage of African-Americans in the student body as a whole. At Alabama, 4.5 percent of the student body are black men against 71.6 percent in the two sports. At Arkansas, 2.4 percent of the student body are black men, but 63 percent in the two sports.
The reasons for the relatively low graduation rates for black men are very complicated, too complicated for this space. But it is clear, however, that some FSB universities are perfectly willing to recruit talented athletes, knowing they are unlikely to graduate. They do this with the promise that their programs are the ones most likely to lead to high-paying careers in the NFL and NBA. These professional sports are true meritocracies, able to pick and choose the most talented prospects. What some FSB schools fail to tell recruits is that fewer than 2 percent of college athletes will every make it to the professional level, even though 68.7 percent of players in the NFL are black, and nearly 75 percent in the NBA.
What the dry statistics truly mean is that too many African-American athletes go home without an education, and without a career. It also means, to me, that if the universities with low graduation rates worried as much about education as they do about winning championships, those graduation rates would increase. Schools like Northwestern may not realistically aspire to the ultimate athletic prizes, but can take pride in having the highest graduation percentage of African-American athletes, even if it’s just slightly better than that somewhat more athletically successful school in far away South Bend, Indiana.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon