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The dilemma of black athletes in American higher education has taken on a new dimension since Jack Olsen examined their exploitation 12 years ago (SI, July 1,8, 15, 22 and 29, 1968). For one thing, the larger number of blacks on athletic teams has all but obliterated the "tokenism" of the '60s. Schools that were once bastions of segregation now applaud basketball and football teams that are fully integrated. The University of Arkansas, for example, had one black athlete in 1968, or less than one-half of 1% of its student-athletes. By 1977 the figure had risen to 26%.
But only a fool would argue that being black is no longer a liability on American campuses. In fact, as far as black student-athletes are concerned, matters may have gotten worse in one very crucial respect. There's a big difference between getting into a university and getting out with a degree. More black athletes graduate from colleges every year, but the evidence suggests that the ratio of those who do to those who don't has declined.
Confused interpretations of "privacy laws" thwart attempts to come up with an accurate figure, but there are some stunning "estimates." Harry Edwards checked the graduation rate of the University of California's black scholarship athletes from 1971 to 1978 and found that "between 70% and 80% didn't graduate—even the ones who came to Berkeley with two years of junior college."
Edwards admits his study was "highly personal," but his requests to see a survey Cal itself recently made were turned down. Athletic Director Dave Maggard said releasing it would "serve no good purpose."
The only thing resembling an official progress report on black athletes was made six years ago as part of the Han-ford study for the American Council on Education. An appended report by Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. found that "twice as many white athletes graduate as blacks," that "82% of the white athletes graduated at one school, 46% of the blacks," and that, at another college, "only 12 of 46 black athletes got their degrees."
Recently, the president of a university that had been rocked by a local lawyer's allegations that black players weren't getting their degrees ordered an internal study of graduation rates there. The results were given to SI with the provision that the school not be named—for "recruiting reasons." They showed that of 91 blacks on varsity teams from 1968 to 1979, only 10 had graduated. Thirteen more were on the verge of doing so, which meant that if all of them made it, the sad total would be 23 out of 91.
Many factors are blamed for such grim statistics, and most of them are not new: the socioeconomic handicaps of being black; the failures of education at the lower levels; the declining standards that permit the "pampered" athlete to be swept through the system until the day diplomas are handed out. Allowing athletes to go unchallenged scholastically is a permission slip to heartbreak. Educators have a term for it: the "Hawthorne Effect"—students will perform up to or down to the levels expected of them.
A decade ago black academicians at NCAA schools were among those who led the movement to get admission standards lowered. They urged this policy on the reasonable grounds that the high percentage of blacks still forced to attend substandard, overcrowded urban schools were denied equal educational opportunity and that opening classroom doors as wide as possible would create an atmosphere of acceptance that would lead to greater achievement. Recently, a growing number of black educators have been calling for quite different measures—including more selective admissions and academic standards. They see present policies as being not only delusive but also counterproductive.
Dr. CD. Henry, an assistant commissioner of the Big Ten, has strong reservations about open admissions. He favors a policy that would factor in a high school athlete's rank in class as well as his grade-point average and his SAT or ACT score.
"The focus should be on education rather than eliminating tests," says Dr. Roscoe Brown, president of Bronx Community College and former director of New York University's Institute of Afro-American Affairs. "I would support the trend toward competency tests for high school graduation. But if you don't want to have them, if you want to keep letting people in the open door, you should keep the corridors open so that the students can get out of the open door with some skills at the end. If a school takes under-prepared players, it has some responsibility to see that those athletes get something out of their experience other than four varsity letters."