Behind the glam of major college sports, there are young people having to prepare for the spotlight behind the scenes. They also have to prepare for their academic futures.
There are extra difficulties for black student athletes in this regard, according to a K-State professor.
“Many of my teammates are experiencing the effects of their experiences as student athletes,” said Albert Bimper, Jr., an assistant professor of special education, counseling and student affairs and a former college and professional football player. “They’re trying to figure out what they do now.”
Bimper is conducting research on the experiences of student athletes of color, particularly black males, with an interest in enhancing the experience. He played football at Colorado State University from 2001 to 2005 and in the National Football League as a center for the Indianapolis Colts from 2006 to 2008.
“Sport is a mirror of our society in many ways,” he said. “We can use sports to really understand those societal relationships we have in our world. It’s not just entertainment.”
Bimper said the experiences of black student athletes are often different from their white teammates, which affects the rate of academic success.
“Trying to deal with some of those situations as a person of color has an effect on what the outcomes are,” he said. “It has an effect on graduation, GPA and the opportunities to even go on to graduate school.”
Of the 70 college teams that competed in 2012-13 bowl games, 51 percent had at least a 20 percentage point difference between the graduation rate of black student athletes and white student athletes. Nearly a quarter of those 70 teams had a 30 percentage point difference in graduation success rates.
K-State didn’t fall in either category, although the overall graduation rate was below average.
Bimper said he’s not interested in placing blame on any particular institution or group of people. He said it’s about understanding the complex system behind college athletics.
“I look around and I don’t see the guys I played ball with, and we have to ask why,” he said. “What happened along the way? Was it all their faults? Or is it a system we’re all a part of that limits those opportunities?”
There are issues that all student-athletes tend to face. They include the coaches controlling their time and the effect athletics can have on academics.
“It’s difficult to often separate what is the white experience versus what is the black experience,” Bimper said. “But it’s not as difficult when we think in terms of society and historically what the shared experiences (are for) a person of color.”
One way to make things better is to examine the people who have already gone through the process. As with many other areas of success, it starts in the home.
Clent Stewart, who played basketball at K-State from 2004 to 2008, said his parents stressed that basketball can open avenues, but it was important to have academics, too. He said not everybody has this type of environment.
“That’s the sad thing going on,” he said. “Even some parents are like ‘My kid is going to make it and help us get out of the situation.’ They should be focused on that option 2 in case they don’t make it. A lot of kids don’t have that option 2.”
Kevin Lockett, who played wide receiver at K-State from 1993 to 1996, is now in the position of making sure his son, Aaron, a wide receiver at K-State, is also following his academic path.
“K-State has been very open with me talking with his counselors and his tutors making sure he’s on pace,” he said.
Lockett, who played in the NFL from 1997 to 2003, is now the chief operating officer at Urban Entrepreneur Partnership, a consulting firm for entrepreneurs. He said his belief in education came from his father (a petroleum engineer) and mother (a computer system analyst).
“I believe it’s every student athlete’s job to take control of their career,” he said. “It’s their goal to set up what they’re interested in and what they want a degree in. They have to take on top of those setting up their schedule to ensure they’re taking the right classes and on path to graduate.”
Once on campus, there’s a certain comfort level that many black players on predominantly white campuses don’t have if they didn’t grow up in that kind of environment.
Lockett said a lack of culture shock was one of the reasons he excelled academically and athletically. He attended magnet schools where student populations were 50 percent white and 50 percent minority.
“It helped me because I was used to not only interacting with people of different race but working with people of different races and excelling with people with different races,” he said.
Lockett said finding a comfort level at an institution such as K-State, where more than 90 percent of the people aren’t from your culture, contributes to difficulties in focusing on academics.
“There’s enough pressure for any student-athlete, period,” Lockett said. “But for minorities, there are many difficulties added on top of that.”
There are also the stereotypes that are ingrained in people of all races about each other.
On the field, Bimper said the perception is that black athletes have an advantage.
“I’ve heard many (black) student-athletes say when I line up against a white athlete, I automatically think for some reason that I’m naturally better,” he said.
He said this superiority stereotype flips when a black student-athlete enters the classroom. There a black student-athlete is more often seen as being in college only to play sports, and can be viewed as lazy and threatening.
“They’re seen as a brute in many ways, kind of a historical stereotype that black athletes are dealing with,” Bimper said.
Stewart agreed that although the stereotype of the dumb jock can affect any athlete, it applies especially to black athletes. “You’re playing a sport but not much is expected academically,” he said. “Yeah, you can run and jump, but you’re not that smart.”
He said the stereotypes that come with being a black student-athlete “added fuel to (his) fire” to succeed in the classroom. “I took it personal,” he said. “That’s why I always wanted to get my academics right, to make sure I was on a different path from that stereotype.”
Stewart, now an automated testing analyst at Phillips 66, said many people would express shock when they found out that he majored in management information systems. “Their reaction would be ‘Oh wow,” he said. “They weren’t expecting that answer.”
Lockett said he would experience similar reactions as an accounting major, but he wasn’t such whether it was because he was a black athlete. He said counselors were hesitant to put his schedule together due to the course load.
“Too many student athletes, particularly athletes of color, are getting degrees that are difficult to transition after college with,” Lockett said. “I’d love to see more of the African American student athletes going into fields where they are more prominent jobs”
Lockett said making resources available for student athletes to succeed is a key.
“The universities that graduate a higher percent of minority athletes have done a good job to help minority athletes,” he said.
Bimper said it’s important for black athletes to be able to visualize academic success. Early in his college career, he said a black man sat next to him during a film meeting the night before a game.
“I asked ‘What do you do?,’” Bimper recalled. “He said, ‘I’m the president of the university. I didn’t know we had a black president at the university.”
The man, Albert Yates, who retired as Colorado State president in 2003 after 13 years, served as one of his inspirations.
Stewart said he talked with a group of K-State athletes recently.
He said he asked for their majors and pushed for an example of what they would do with it after their athletic career. He said many didn’t know.
“If you’re majoring in social science, you should have some idea what you want to do with that social science degree,” he said. “They’re a blown knee away from having to rely on that degree.”
Bimper said once he got to the NFL, he began wondering what was next. “There may be more than just the NFL, where I’ve always inspired to be,” he remembered thinking.
Bimper said he could have tried out for more teams but chose to pursue a new path through education.
“There’s a larger reality of guys not making it and going home to their moms’ coaches with the same possibilities they had when they left high school,” he said.