Does the black community focus more on athletics than academics with young men?

NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo makes a point while Bryan Scott, right, and Ovie Mughelli, left, listen. (Vino Wong/AJC)

NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo makes a point while Bryan Scott, right, and Ovie Mughelli, left, listen. (Vino Wong/AJC)

Before he was drafted into the NFL, football standout Bryan Scott was asked by a pro coach why he had attended Penn State. Scott credited a conversation with legendary Penn Statee coach Joe Paterno.

“He came to me more as a grandfather than a football coach,” said Scott, now a safety with the Buffalo Bills and founder  of Pick Your Passion Foundation for the Arts.

“Coach Paterno told me, ‘Don’t come to Penn State because your friends are here, because I want you to come, because your parents want you to come or because we have a good football program. I can’t promise you football will work out, and if something happens, I want to know that you are comfortable on this campus, that you are sure you are getting a great education,’” said Scott.

The pro coached listened to Scott with incredulity, telling the young player, “You would rather graduate than win a national championship? Wow.”

Speaking at a panel at Piedmont Park Wednesday, Scott says that exchange was an example of the mixed messages to student athletes.

Moderated by former CNN sports analyst Larry Smith, the panel also featured NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, Redan High school student athlete Akil Dan-Fodio, former Atlanta Brave and Atlanta Falcon Brian Jordan, former Detroit Lion Ryan McNeil and Atlanta Falcon fullback Ovie Mughelli. Along with their successful sports careers,  the panelists were all accomplished students; at least two were considering medical careers before they turned pro.

Sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Society, the panel was given this question as a starting point: Is there a greater focus in communities, families and schools on athletics than on academics for young black men?”

Opening the panel, DuBois Society president Etienne LeGrand said that many black kids dream of sports careers and their parents support them.

A collegiate athlete herself, LeGrand said that she understands the role of athletics in developing character and teaching team work and cooperation.

But does the black community encourage sports over education? And are kids shunning academic excellence for the distant dream of a sports career?

A recent report noted that while 91 percent of white basketball players in Division I  colleges graduate, only 59 percent of African-American players graduate. And according to the High School Athletic Association, only .09 percent of high school seniors playing football — less than one in a thousand – end up in the pros.  Among basketball players in high school, it’s only one in 3,400. Among all college athletes, 1 percent go on to play at the professional level. (Here is a NCAA chart on the probability.)

As a former CNN analyst, Larry Smith admitted the media’s complicity, noting the imbalance in the attention given to the achievements of students on the field compared to those in the classroom. “You can’t fit 70,000 people in the classroom. We don’t say ‘Tune in to see the star quarterback go for an A in his physics exam Friday morning. 8 a.m.’”

“When I go to an inner city school and ask kids what is it you want to do when you grow up, 95 percent say, ‘I want to play professional basketball. I want to play professional football.  I want to be a rapper,’” said Scott. “Very  seldom do I hear ‘I want to be a dentist. I want to be a lawyer.  I want to be a teacher.’”

(The dentist reference is not without a back story. Scott’s father never planned to attend college as a teen growing up in South Carolina but a coach saw him playing a pickup basketball game in the Claflin University gym and promised him some financial help to attend the school. He ended up going on to Howard University and has been a successful oral surgeon in the Philadelphia area since 1981, said Scott.)

One of 10 children from an African family, Dikembe Mutombo said he never doubted why he was at Georgetown University — for an education.  Two strong men made certain of that, his father and his coach.

When his father put him on the plane to fly to Washington from the Congo, he told him, “‘Next time we see you will be when you graduate from college.’ My father did not say that “the next time I will see you will be at the NBA draft.’” said the former NBA player who now lives in Atlanta.

Although he had an extraordinary 18 year career in the NBA, Mutombo said the average tenure now is less than four years. Athletes can see their entire careers dashed with a single injury. “You need to have insurance. It is not just buying life insurance. Your insurance is your education.”

At Georgetown, Mutombo said basketball coach John Thompson stressed to players that school came first. Players who skipped classes routinely could find their bags packed, a ticket purchased and a cab waiting to transport them to a flight home, he recalled.

“I saw more than six guys kicked out after two years or after the first year, ” Mutombo said.

In his four years of college, Mutombo said he missed class once because of a toothache. When he showed up for practice later that day, Mutombo said he ended up sitting in Thompson’s office for more than two hours explaining himself.  And while Thompson finally relented, Mutombo said there was  ticket back to the Congo ready for him at his locker.

The problem, said Brian Jordan, is that young kids can’t be dissuaded by the numbers on how few athletes will ever attain pro status.

“They believe ‘I am the one who is going to make it. That is what I am hearing from my parents, that is what I hearing from these colleges coaches,”’ said Jordan. “Kids are young. They are gullible. If you are going to sell to them that they are going to be the next Michael Jordan, they are going to believe it.”

As a student athlete bound for Florida International University to play football, Redan High School senior Akil Dan-Fodio said far more acclaim flows to athletes.

“If you make honor roll, your name is put on a list that goes up in the hall,” he said. “But if you are athlete of the week, it is in the newspaper. There are cameras. Your game might be on ESPN. Everybody knows about it. The only way people know about academic scholarships is if you tell them. Every kid wants to be recognized for what they did. You get that more with sports than you do with academics.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog


68 comments Add your comment

Toto: silver is the new green...

May 5th, 2011
12:27 am

Functionally illiterate in Detroit: 50%
“Some call you illiterate, but I call you my base.”
All your base are belong to us……

BTW, where was the kidney dialysis machine in Osama’s house? Are you sure they had the right address?


May 5th, 2011
1:19 am

Unfortunately, yes.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then the child hears the louder, more consistent messages. Unfortunately, those messages are about sports. You are more popular and accepted as an athlete than an academic. Too many kids want one of 4000 major professional athlete jobs instead of the longer term success of a surgeon.

There are 10x more surgeons in the US than combined professional NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB athletes…but the sports get more than 10x the focus even though the surgeons will earn more than most of the athletes over their careers.

Here’s to more Ben Carsons & Kenneth Chenaults!


May 5th, 2011
2:38 am

Toto; I saw that too. Seems a lot more important than Teacher Appreciation Day.

David Sims

May 5th, 2011
2:42 am

Speaking to the title: they might as well.


May 5th, 2011
4:33 am

It is not just the black community, it is the world.


May 5th, 2011
5:33 am

next question


May 5th, 2011
6:10 am

By way of analogy, how many of these parents put as much money in savings as they spend on lottery tickets? I think I know the answer.

NY Teaching Vet

May 5th, 2011
6:16 am

A couple of years ago, a boy excitedly told me he was going to college to play basketball, and that he had a scholarship. Knowing that he was failing all of his classes and still hadn’t passed the graduation test, I was a bit surprised. I asked how the scholarship came to be. He mentioned that a coach had sent him a letter telling him he was a great player and there would be a scholarship waiting for him at school X. He honestly believed it and was crushed when we explained that he had to graduate from high school first.


May 5th, 2011
6:18 am

I have seen the same obsession with parents of female athletes also.

Write Your Board Members

May 5th, 2011
6:38 am

It is a national problem, that in some ways transcends race, but a child with educated parents who understand the odds hears at home that academics matter and your chance at being a professional entertainer or athlete are slim. You need a back up.

Having worked with students who grew up in poverty, too many don’t have an idea of what they want to be when the grow up. There is little to no inspiration at home, mom may bounce from low paying job to low paying job, there may be no father figure, etc.

But athletes and celebrities are all over the place.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

May 5th, 2011
6:49 am

Too many Black folk and White folk focus more on athletics than academics.

Dan-Fodio’s remarks “hit the nail on the head.”

KUDOS to the W.E.B. DuBois Society and these men for focusing on the importance of academic achievement!

Let us hope that the media expands its coverage of the relative import of academics and athletics to our kids and to the future of our society. Let us also hope that more athletes and coaches step forward in support of the proposition that, contrary to the gospel according to ESPN, academic achievement is more important than athletic prowess.

Cobb Woman of Color

May 5th, 2011
6:52 am

Athletics, fashion and hairstyles are pushed more than academics in the lower, middle and sometimes upper income Black families. Black children who excel academically are still accused of “acting white”. Excellence is not a color.

It is time Black organizations focus on our children and not illegal immigration, focusing on asine activities and truly work to better the comunity

Cobb Woman of Color

May 5th, 2011
6:53 am

Meant to better the community…


May 5th, 2011
7:00 am

Some might say yes and others might say no. Since Im not a member of the black community I will trust the word of “Cobb Woman of Color”.

Anonymous Poster

May 5th, 2011
7:13 am

NY Teacher Vet-

I experienced the exact same scenario with a student. He was Caucasian though, and absolutely devastated when I (after telling him I was so proud of him) I had to explain that no college would take him without a high school diploma, scholarship or not.

That speaks also to the college athletic community. Do they overly exploit the hopes of children without emphasizing the relationship of academic performance to collegiate success?


May 5th, 2011
7:26 am

I would change this topic to “Does the community focus more on athletics than academics with young “. The media and advertisers plays a role in influencing public opinion and perceptions. How many advertisers would support the ‘Hi Q Quiz Bowl’ show versus a high school sporting event? Who sits around the TV waiting to see who will misspell a word on the National Spelling Bee?

First and foremost, how well a student performs academically is what determines how may doors of opportunity will open. Combining that with athletic excellence will help to open more doors. It should not be the other way around. This is true for all communities and for boys and girls.

Jordan Kohanim

May 5th, 2011
7:30 am

Cobb Woman of Color said, “Athletics, fashion and hairstyles are pushed more than academics in the lower, middle and sometimes upper income Black families. Excellence is not a color.”

So true! I’d also argue that the fascination with immediate gratification pushed in today’s society devalues the long-term reward of education.I don’t know that it necessarily is separated by race or socioeconomic status anymore. I see ALL areas of our society affected by an increasing need for entertainment over substance. (One of my favorite jokes is that every time you watch Jersey Shore a book commits suicide).

If we create a culture that is focused on immediate escapism and diversion, as opposed to the joy of long-term achievement, it is no wonder our appreciation for education wanes. Education is a long-term benefit that requires investment and overcoming academic obstacles. Can we blame kids for not being motivated? Everything around them tells them that is the reward isn’t instant, it isn’t worth it and is a waste of time.

That is the message that ALL of society is sending–not just the Black community–sports, sensationalism, and instant entertainment is better. Everything else is just a waste of time.

Forgive the ninth grade lit teacher in me: “With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.” ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

and one more then I’ll stop (sorry)…”People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.” ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


May 5th, 2011
7:37 am

Somebody needs to tell these wanna be rappers and athletes what percentage REALLY go to the top. I had to explain to my students that IF you want to go pro you have to be accepted into college first (minor exceptions). “What?” they ask. I also tell them that you can’t major in football.


May 5th, 2011
7:49 am

Ask hershel Walker…….he admitted last year that he can’t read. But hey, he could run, jump, catch, etc and thats all UGA wanted.

Academics….what’s that??

V for Vendetta

May 5th, 2011
7:56 am

Jordan and Cobb Woman are spot on.

Many of my black students talk about becoming pro athletes when they are not talented enough to make the ninth grade team. Huh? Yet they BELIEVE it, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. Poor academic performance doesn’t seem to affect whether or not they play; it is considered a necessity, a right, an expectation. On the other hand, it is more likely that the white students are removed from teams once their academic performance begins to slip.

I think this is endemic to society in general right now as Jordan pointed out, but it seems more prevalent in the black community. (I’m not singling them out. It’s just a fact that the majority of athletics at the high school level is made up of black and white students. Hispanics and Asians constitute a much smaller percentage–for far different reasons.) How can we stop this trend? I think panels such as the aforementioned one are a step in the right direction. Perhaps educating people on the facts of percentages would help as well. (Only a fraction of one percent of children who play football will ever make it to the League.)

One thing is for sure: prejudices be damned, this is a real and visible problem, one that is crippling black students’ chances in school and society in general.


May 5th, 2011
7:56 am

I also tell my students that it helps if you are academically eligible to play, so that the coaches can find you – but they need to have a backup plan in case of injury, etc.

Of course, we have these traveling and rec dept teams that don’t worry about academic eligibility.

In a way, that makes it worse, because then you get, “No, I couldn’t study for the test. We had a game last night in [somewhere 3-4 hours west of where we live].”

Double Zero Eight

May 5th, 2011
8:04 am

To some degree yes……..sports is the only way for
many to have any chance of attending college.
It is sad that many do not use the opportunity
to complete their education, and earn their degree.

I have a friend who played with Herschel Walker at
Georgia. He was a good athlete, but only lasted 3
years in the pros. Fortunately for him, he had earned
his degree and went on to be a successful entrepreneur.

Tad Jackson

May 5th, 2011
8:09 am

Not much help here. I teach and tutor kids of all races who are hoping just to get through the day. The thought of becoming a college or professional athlete … or a professional anything at this point in their development … is a dream of such enormous alienness that it’s much more satisfying for us to be realistic and go from there.

But we’ll never give up. Never.

HS Public Teacher

May 5th, 2011
8:10 am

When it is such public knowledge that football, basketball, and baseball players makes millions of dollars per year, can you blame them?

However, the little publicised fact is that very very few of these high school players or college players will ever make it pro. That leaves them to collect welfare because by then it is too late for them to catch up on their academics.

HS Public Teacher

May 5th, 2011
8:11 am

Actually the same can be said about the ‘music’ industry. These kids see a rapper “living the life” and think that they can do it too. However, very vew individuals actually make it.


May 5th, 2011
8:12 am

Since you through out the stat about Division I college graduates, for both Whites and Blacks, could you also mention that the University of Notre Dame had a grad rate of 100%? Probably not because that would throw a monkey wrench in the argument.


May 5th, 2011
8:13 am


May 5th, 2011
8:20 am

Who interviewed those students? Did anyone do spell check before publishing the quotes, or did they intentionally leave in correct usages of words to make a point? Geesh. My eyes hurt.


May 5th, 2011
8:22 am

This is 2 great posts recently based on Etienne LeGrande’s forums and comments. I’d not heard of her before, but I’m really impressed so far.

no mas

May 5th, 2011
8:24 am

More power to Ms. LeGrand. I have been reading about her efforts in the last few years – she is a powerhouse.

Maureen Downey

May 5th, 2011
8:33 am

@educationCEO, Not sure how the record of a single college — one noted for a long time for its graduation record — blots out the overall records of all the colleges. At the panel, Etienne LeGrand made the point that parents should find out the top schools that graduate the highest numbers of student athletes.

Chris Murphy, Atlanta, GA

May 5th, 2011
8:33 am

White families have the same problems. I am still amazed and family and friends believe the “all star” hype of various sports. Their kids aren’t all stars: it’s that the parents are egotistical enough to believe their progeny has pro- or college-level potential, and mainly that they are ignorant enough to spend the money. It’s an incredible joke.


May 5th, 2011
8:59 am

Regardless of race, part of the problem is how we focus popularity. I would guess that the athletes are still the most popular group of guys in high school. However, there are not enough athlete jobs available for adults. We need to develop the strengths that kids have. Not all of them are great athletes. Even sports has a grade inflation problem. 4000 pro athletes in the major sports. Overall average career length about 5 years across major sports. If 20% retire/are forced out annually, you get 800 jobs across all of the major sports. I’d rather take my chances on a lottery ticket than a pro sports career. Less time/money input for incredibly slim odds of success. 8-O

There was an interesting story/book summary on the Today Show this morning that addressed this concern about high school coolness & success.


May 5th, 2011
9:02 am

Unfortunately, sometimes athletic ability trumps just about everything else (although they do, technically, have to graduate). In my county just last year a hyped-up football player who had colleges interested since his sophomore year (when he also switched to the school in my county from another one, but that’s a whole different post) received a ono-on-one tutor during the last half of his senior year to pass the grad tests and then was sent to a junior college for the summer to “prepare” him for academics at the large University who “won” him over. He saw some playing time this spring, but god help him he gets injured because even though he’s enrolled there now – there’s not even an education waiting for him because he’ll flunk out without the tutors he is now provdided. SMH…..


May 5th, 2011
9:27 am

@Maureen My point was that reports are ALWAYS dramatized but we rarely get reports with solutions. People are quick to assume they know about these families when no one ever asks them HOW the schools/community organizations can help. Same arguments/generalizations I heard from some teachers. Just because parents don’t attend PTA meetings, that doesn’t mean they don’t care. Some folks have 2 or 3 jobs so sitting amongst a bunch of babbling parents is not a high priority. Or there are some parents who had such negative experiences in high school (often same high school their kids attend) that the thought of speaking with anyone there gives them flashbacks. Or how about the fact that a lot of kids are not even being exposed to opportunities? Any school with more than 1500 kids can in no way meet the needs of all of those kids. Schools often only pay attention when kids are having behavior problems (which are usually indicative of learning issues/or other issues) or when kids are in danger of failing a class or high-stakes test. when did we go from giving kids support before something bad happens to waiting until the bad thing happens to try and fix the problem?

A kid may struggle in Math/Reading, etc, but has a mean jump shot knows that he or she has a chance of going to college, doing better than his/her parents, or earning a living. Am I saying that there is not a problem with the way society values athletics or academics? absolutely not. But this has been an issue for many, many years. I guess having a Black president has made it o.k. to talk about these things when they have been going on for years. Why not look at the root of these problems (broken education system, generational poverty, economics, etc.) instead of the sudden grandstanding and assumptions about what all Black people value, unless of course you undertake the task of interviewing every Black person in the U.S.


May 5th, 2011
9:29 am

Why is such an obvious answer need this question to be asked?


May 5th, 2011
9:35 am

The problem with the question is that is not just a black problem. It is a problem across all races. The role of the media can not be understated here. Look at the negative backlash given to Harrison Barnes and Andrew Luck for their decision to stay in school. One black and one white but both were intelligent enough to get academic scholarships in they had not received an athletic scholarship.

Stereotypes also contribute to the problem. To this day, people are more apt to ask me if I played football or basketball in college before they will ask what I do. Why? I am a tall black man and people assume I must have played some sports in college. I went college on academic scholarships (that did not cover all my costs) and worked to cover the rest of my costs.


May 5th, 2011
9:44 am

This is absolutely said that such a question would be raised. Black communities and families value education and academics.


May 5th, 2011
9:45 am

It is not unusual anymore for high schools to “recruit” players in their more popular sports from areas outside of their schools’ attendance zone. There are parents who”move” to areas with good programs in their child’s sport so that they have a better chance for college recruiters to see them. The coach is okay with this as he gets a great player and a better chance at a winning team. Even though these are great schools, I am sure the last concern is for the education of the student athlete. This is completely parent driven, and it’s only high school.


May 5th, 2011
9:49 am

excuse my typo above but I meant to say sad.


May 5th, 2011
9:51 am

Unfortunately, in the USA athletics trounce academics, and it spans all races, not just blacks. Academic excellence is just something a lot of schools place on their letterhead. When your 1/24/10 blog (Honor Student World: Where All the Students are Above Average: reported Professor Wainberg being alarmed due to Honor’s Day being diluted to spread awards around or being eliminated due to not wanting to hurt the feelings of kids who have not earned awards, I knew we as a nation were in trouble.

It seems academic achievement is something that is shunned in this country as being inherently uncool or unimportant to educational facilities, whereas athletic ability is king. Example: Academic awards ceremonies have begun in Gwinnett County. A principal in one of the middle schools actually told parents their child’s academic accomplishments were too many and therefore “put a bad taste in parents’ mouths” and that child should only share the top award with someone else?

What ever happened to merit based academic awards? Can you imagine if athletes in the Olympics won multiple awards like Michael Phelps, yet were told his earned gold medals needed to be spread around because the other athletes’ parents feelings would be hurt?


May 5th, 2011
9:51 am

While it is true that the irrational draw to sports and entertainment often trumps academics for most who need the education crosses all races – the black community CERTAINLY focuses on this mostly dead end route much more than any other single ethnic group.

Just stating the obvious as the question elicits.


May 5th, 2011
9:53 am

Of course!! Go to any high school sporting event and count the number of parents in the stands, then go to parent teacher conferences or an open house at the high school. Guess what?

Let's make it better

May 5th, 2011
10:03 am

The teacher said to the students: “Come to the edge.”
They replied: “We might fall.”
The teacher said again: ” Come to the edge.”
and the students responded: ” It’s too high.”
“Come the edge” the teacher demanded.
And they came and the teacher pushed them
and they flew!


May 5th, 2011
10:05 am

Compare the number of blogs and bloggers on the AJC between “Getting Schooled” and anything to do with sports…..


May 5th, 2011
10:12 am

@Fedup – Point well illustrated. Somehow our children have become “student athletes” when the adjective should be athletic, and the noun should be students. Schools should return to the basics and place the emphasis on “student” again. If the athletic student is not making the grade, then the student should not be allowed to participate in the school sport. School should be primarily about EDUCATION.


May 5th, 2011
10:32 am

“Black children who excel academically are still accused of “acting white”.”

@Cobb Woman of Color, I have spent my entire 15 year teaching career teaching low income kids in Title I schools. I have yet to hear a student make that statement. It’s tossed around all the time as being the truth. In reality, it rarely happens. It could be a person’s speech that makes other kids accuse them of trying to be white. Not just using correct English, but having a totally different accent. But it’s not achievement. I have asked my kids do they hear this at their 99% black schools, they’ve always answered no.

Both of my children participate in athletics, however academics are first. My son’s coaches are very high-achieving business men that push the players to focus on academics first. This means that if they learn that your grades are slipping, you will be benched. It’s one of the reasons I was attracted to the team. They have degrees from top universities, all of them played basketball, yet none of them are athletes.

Frankly, I hear more about becoming an athlete from my low income students than from my middle and upper middle income friends and neighbors. Most of them push academics because they have achieved success from getting an education. Interestingly enough, with the recent games we’ve played, I see more all white basketball teams than ever before. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a black problem, this is a national problem.


May 5th, 2011
2:10 pm

@RJ – Although I do not know her, I can vouch for Cobb Woman of Color’s statement because I have heard black students say a black student who excelled academically was “acting white” on varied occasions in varied locations as I have volunteered and been a substitute teacher in different school systems. It makes me cringe, so I always take the time to ask thought provoking questions intended to guide these student to see that they are often insulting their own race.

another comment

May 5th, 2011
2:13 pm

Several years ago, I offered to help tutor reading in second grade class during the day while it was going on, to help the teacher. I was given a black girl and boy. Neither could read at all. The boy’s parents had him signed up for 3 day a week practice for football with games on Saturday. I offered to the parents that as soon as football was over the boy could ride the bus home with my child, and I would tutor him for free. They would also save the $5 a day that ASP was at the time. Only two times did these parents find the effort to sign a note that the kid could get off the bus at my house for free tutoring. Then they found it more important to sign him up for basketball, baseball and soccer.

I bought the boy, books at the thrift store for about 50Cents. He was shocked when I gave them to him. He obviously, never had any books. I would have had him reading at grade level, if they had only bothered to sign a note to let him come to my house a few times for free tutoring.

This kid was a mediocre player at best on the Pee Wee football team.

Archie@Arkham Asylum

May 5th, 2011
2:26 pm

Back in the day, (When Penn State was known as “Linebacker U.”) Coach Paterno actually managed to graduate 95% of his football players. I am not so sure the percentage is that high, nowadays! @tim: This is news to me about Hershel Walker! I believe he was actually valdictorian (however you spell that) of his graduating class at Johnson County High School! But then, during my ten year stretch as a teacher in South Georgia, one of the first things I learned about football was that in South Georgia, football was not a game, it was religion! None of the players at my teaching assignment were Hershel Walker caliber but there were a few I would dare to say if they had kept their grades up and their discipline records clean, they quite possibly could have played small college (HBSU even more possibly). However, they didn’t and when their eligibility to play high school ended, they wound up on the “athletic scrap heap.” Tragic!