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When the game is over.

Exploited, Many African-American Athletes Fumble College

Eric Ramsey had it all. He had been a star defensive back at football powerhouse Auburn University. He had been popular with classmates and a local hero. He made it to the National Football League. In short, Ramsey had everything that a poor African-American kid who liked to play football could dream of. Then it all came crashing down. In 1991, after spending five years at Auburn and signing with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ramsey told the truth about his experience as an African-American athlete at Auburn. Coaches taunted African-American players, racism ran rampant in the football program, and Auburn coach Pat Dye fixed a collateral-free loan for Ramsey, in direct violation of NCAA rules.

Sitting before a hearing at the Congressional Black Caucus this past November, Ramsey and his wife told of the exploitation that African-American athletes suffered and of the harassment that dogged them since they came forward. Tears welling up in her eyes, Twilitta Ramsey said, "We did it because for five years we saw Black athletes get abused mentally and physically by coaches. And after their football eligibility was over, or if they were injured, they were thrown away like dirty dishrags."

Ramsey's story is only one version of a tragedy that has struck many African-American collegiate athletes when the game is over. Ramsey was smart enough to go to classes and get this education despite coaches prodding him to do less thinking about books and more thinking about football. (Last year Robert Smith, star running back at Ohio State University, quit the team because he said he was told, "You're here to play football. You take school too seriously.") Many African-American athletes graduate as functional illiterates or don't graduate at all. "Graduation rates for Black athletes are abysmal," says Charles S. Farrell, president of Sports Perspectives International, an advocacy group for athletes, particularly African-American ones. "Only about 25 percent of Black scholarship athletes in Division I, the NCAA's top competitive division, receive colleges degrees after six years."

Anecdotes abound of African-American athletes who were intensely recruited by schools, then abandoned when they arrived, with no attention paid to their cultural or social, not to mention academic, well-being. With little or no support outside of their athletic training, some get into trouble almost as soon as they get into college. Recently two University of Maryland football players were charged with going on a spending spree with a stolen credit card. A University of Louisville football player was accused of raping a student in her campus apartment. In the past year and a half, 15 Arizona State University basketball and football players were charged with crimes ranging from sexual assault to illegal credit card use. Fourteen of the 15 are African Americans.

Some experts say that despite greater attention being paid to college athletes and collegiate sports scandals, the problem of the exploited African-American athlete is getting worse. "The decline of academic achievement among many of America's talented and gifted athletes has accelerated," says David L. Smith, president of SET Communications Inc. and a former college and pro athlete himself. The NCAA will get more than $1 billion in the next seven years from network TV to broadcast games, says Smith. Sales in sports marketing topped $8 billion last year--despite the recession. "The multi-billion dollar sports industry has grown at the expense of the intellectual, emotional, social, and economic needs of its participants. The sports industry has merged into the entertainment industry on the backs of free athletic talent."

Often promising athletes, a large proportion of them African Americans, arrive on campus with one thing in mind: playing their sport and playing it well. They are often from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many, like Ramsey, are the first people in their families to go to college. The students and their parents are unfamiliar with college and often at the mercy of the coaches who direct them. "Only the athletes are amateurs," says Smith. The dreams of riches and a life in professional sports are far more glamorous than cracking the books. And many student-athletes are intoxicated by them. "Coaches tell them all along that if they go full speed every practice and win games, they will be rich when they leave," says Ramsey. "What really happens is that they leave with broken, patched, aching bones, and no college degree."

In many ways the problems of African-American college athletes are symptomatic of society's problems: from the American obsession with "living large," fast cars, and fat steaks, to the persistent view of African-American men as little more than sports commodities. In professional sports too, African-Americans athletes complain of prejudice and a lack of empowerment. Perhaps more importantly, African Americans are still grossly underrepresented in the front offices and head coaching and manager positions in every sport, at the college and the professional level. African-Americans are still seen by many whites as incapable of doing anything more than jumping, running, and tackling. But racism is an insufficient explanation for the exploitation of these athletes. For instance, while only four percent of coaches are African-American, about 25 percent of the approximately 100 coaches under NCAA sanctions for violating recruitment rules are African-American, according to NCAA statistics.

And many experts say that the African-American community and the young men who play college sports are also to blame. "Our athletes too often buy into the myth that their only chance of success is through sports, even though the odds are far better that they can become a doctor or lawyer than a professional athlete," says Farrell. The African-American community does not work to challenge its youth to put the same amount of energy into the classroom that they do on the field. He says, "Black youths aspire to become the next Michael Jordan while ignoring the classroom."

Meanwhile, college sports officials claim they have already improved the way they do business. "The reform movement to improve college sports started in the early '80s," says Charles M. Neinas, executive director of the College Football Association, an organization of 67 major football playing universities, independent of but linked to the NCAA. A group of concerned college and university presidents, athletic directors, and coaches got together to discuss the failings and corruption of college sports. Subsequently they met formerly as the NCAA Presidents Commission to recommend changes to the NCAA: stricter rules and less intense recruiting and training schedules. Many coaches were upset that the administrative brass was interfering in their arena. Neinas points out that football coaches themselves reduced the off-campus recruiting season from 200 days to fewer than eight weeks and that coaches prompted legislation to prohibit alumni and boosters from becoming involved in the recruiting process, offering free cars and apartments.

And specific colleges have responded to critics as well. The University of Maryland has a support program for freshmen athletes that includes everything from study skills to social skills to stress management. Some colleges, like Stanford University, have academic support programs for athletes. At Stanford there is an optional study hall nightly for athlete-students. Students who fall below a C-average are required to attend.

Clearly, more can be done. More African-American coaches and athletic directors in more colleges and universities could serve as role models for these athletes and help them make the adjustments to college life. Many athlete advocacy groups argue that recruiting must be overhauled. The current cut-throat system allows, even encourages, schools to offer prospective recruits under-the-table deals and illegal perks that distort the student-athlete's goals even before he gets to school. Farrell suggests that scholarships be issued on a five-year basis rather than renewed year to year. "That would allow athletes to feel more secure in the pursuit of a degree, rather than permit coaches to have the power of life and death over an athlete," says Farrell.

Congress is threatening action of its own. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a former college and pro basketball player, and Representative Aldolphous Towns of New York have introduced the Coach and Athletes Bill of Rights, a college sports reform bill. It would supersede the NCAA's self-monitoring and would create federal penalties for colleges that abuse student-athletes or recruit illegally. Many experts attribute the progress in college sports so far to be the result of the threat of federal action.

Auburn University initially denied Eric Ramsey's charges, although Coach Dye, who was forced out as athletic director after Ramsey made the allegations in the fall of 1991, admitted that Auburn had broke some NCAA rules in dealing with Ramsey. The NCAA is still conducting an investigation into the charges. Meanwhile, Ramsey paid a high cost for coming forward with his allegations. He is sure he was released from the Kansas City Chiefs because of it. He is certain that he can't find a place on any NFL team because Coach Dye pulled strings to have him ostracized. He and his wife are now going to school in the Washington area and trying to make a new life for themselves, away from the threats and harassment they say they received from Auburn boosters after Eric broke his silence.

Ramsey's revelations may make a difference at Auburn, but no number of Congressional Black Caucus hearings alone will be able to end the exploitation of African-American college athletes. That will not happen until colleges get serious about policing themselves and until African-American student-athletes and their parents demand an education with their competition. But even that may not be enough to reverse a system of exploitation that has become so ingrained. It may take an act of Congress to get coaches and administrators to treat athletes like whole people--or at least like college students.

Marcus Mabry is an associate editor for Newsweek magazine in Washington, DC.
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Title Annotation:exploitation of black athletes in college
Author:Mabry, Marcus
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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