Martin Center column probes key distraction in the college sports debate

P.A. Jensen writes for the Martin Center about the role of race in discussions of college sports problems.

National discussions of college athletics routinely emphasize race. That emphasis, however, is unfortunate because it diverts attention from issues that affect all student-athletes. Also, discussions of race in college sports commonly rely on questionable statistics.

Some of those statistics come from a report by Shaun Harper, head of the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California. His report makes the case that big-money college athletics exploits black male athletes—or, as Harper’s Washington Post op-ed read, “Black Men Will Play and White Men Will Profit.”

Harper’s report provides useful data on graduation rates of black male athletes at major schools, including changes in those rates (or lack thereof) over the last decade. However, while many news outlets have treated the report as scholarship, it is not peer-reviewed. Furthermore, the report’s analysis of its own data is misleading in three key ways.

First, the report claims that black males are over-represented on sports rosters at major universities compared to the student body in general. That is true, but the report under-represents black men on campus by comparing men’s sports rosters to student bodies directly. Men’s rosters exclude women, meaning that even if every male student were black, men’s sports rosters would be 100 percent black men, while the student body would be only 50 percent black men.

Furthermore, the disparity owes more to the large number of elite black athletes than to the small number of black students. As outlined elsewhere, less than a fifth of the disparity is due to low enrollment of black students compared to the overall population. The disparity is largely an illusory problem—yet it is a major focus of Harper’s report.

The report also misinterprets the academic records of black athletes.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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