The Chronicle Review

Black Athletes and White Professors: a Twilight Zone of Uncertainty

October 10, 2003

In my first year as a college teacher, I discovered a future literary genius and


Colloquy: Join an online discussion on whether white professors are failing to reach out to black athletes.

lost her again. Reading over the writing exercises my students had turned in, I came across an essay that was wise, witty, tragic, and gripping. After marking it with an A, I looked at the name on the cover sheet but could not picture the author. When I handed back the papers I discovered, to my surprise, that the gifted student was one of the "lost girls." This was my secret nickname for the group of young women who sat in the very back of the room -- that is, when they attended class. They were all athletes -- like a good many of the students I now teach at Louisiana State University, where around 90,000 fans attend football games each week in the fall -- and most of them were black. They did not seem very attentive, and I had not expected much from them. Until now.

I asked to talk to the author after class. I told her how much I had enjoyed her essay. There was a moment of petrified discomfort on her part. She said softly, "I wrote it." I nodded, then understood that she thought I was accusing her of plagiarism. I assured her that I wasn't.

She relaxed a little, and we talked. Actually it was more like a gentle interrogation. I asked if she had any aspirations related to writing. She hemmed. I asked if she intended to take some creative-writing courses. She hawed. I felt that she appreciated my praise but was forcing herself to remain impassive. After offering her some final words of encouragement, I gave up.

At the end of the semester, I sat in my office as the deadline ticked closer for students to turn in their final papers. Near the zero hour, my favorite essayist came in, put her paper on my desk, and asked if she was on time. I said she was.

I don't usually torture students by looking over their work in front of them, but I noticed that this paper was not in the assigned format. I pointed that out, mentioning that I would deduct points accordingly. The young woman sat down, looking crestfallen.

"I didn't know about that," she said, and she explained that she hadn't understood the instructions for the assignment. I replied, with some exasperation, "Well, you've had them in the syllabus for months. Why didn't you come to me and ask for clarification?"

"I thought you'd be angry about it," she blurted out, and then seemed to want to pull her words back. I didn't know what to say. Don't all students understand that asking a question, any question, is their fundamental right and a necessity for their education? The meeting drifted to a close.

That final paper was also impressive. After the semester was over, I kept hoping the student would show up again at my office door, new writing in hand, asking me to read it. But she never did.

Later, I told the story to a friend who taught at an urban high school. He asked what I thought was a strange question: "Was she black?" When I answered that she was, he said, "Maybe she was scared of you."

At first, I couldn't believe that was the explanation. I was no monster, and the student was no shrinking violet. She was a tough, imposing, and successful athlete. But over time I came to feel that my friend was right, and that has led me to rethink some of my basic teaching principles and practices.

My student probably was afraid of her white male professor, uncomfortable at the thought of reaching out for help or advice, or too shy to show off her talents and welcome attention. I had failed her by not developing a teaching style that allowed me to encourage her class participation and nurture her literary abilities. In other words, because I had not reached out to her, I had not done my job.

Since I came to that conclusion, I have talked to athletes, both white and black students; advisers in athletics departments; and teachers on many campuses in an effort to understand what created a wall between me and that gifted young woman. I began to suspect that I was witnessing a social phenomenon, not an anomaly, when I noticed a pattern in my students' responses in the regular quizzes I give them about various pedagogical issues. In response to the question "In an average course, how many times a semester do you visit the professor in his or her office?" the lowest numbers were almost always cited by athletes -- especially the athletes who described themselves as African-American or black.

I don't think that the problem is limited to athletes. But athletes -- especially African-Americans -- may grow up in an environment and face challenges in college that make them less likely to interact with white professors outside of class. And some white professors are behaving in ways that keep those students at a distance, even those of us who believe we are not motivated by malice toward athletes or black students. That behavior includes:

Overlooking. A professor may think of athletes as being on the campus chiefly to play a sport, not to learn, and the professor speaks to and calls on other students instead. As one black athlete put it, "You get the feeling that they don't think of you as a student. Or they don't see you at all." An African-American college teacher, who in his own student days was a scholarship athlete, said, "You have this impression of being transparent. They look at the white kid behind you."

Lowered expectations. A professor may assume that black athletes don't have much to contribute to a group discussion. One black athlete told me about a professor who asked the class a series of questions. The athlete raised his hand each time but was not called on. After class, he asked the professor why he hadn't had a chance to speak: The professor "looked hurt, like he had been doing me a favor, and said, 'I didn't want to embarrass you.'" Sometimes a professor conveys lowered expectations explicitly. One student told me: "I got a C on a paper, and I deserved that, but then the professor said to me, 'That's a great grade for you.'"

Cutting off. When an athlete does speak, a professor may cut the comments short or signal a lack of interest by checking the time, looking away, or coughing. "I know we don't have all day," a black athlete commented to me about another professor, "but at least give me equal time."

Intensified scrutiny. Even worse is when a professor seems to be looking for ways to find flaws in athletes' work, or to make trouble for them. "I saw myself jumped on for things that others [whites who weren"t athletes] did and weren't hit for," recalled a black athlete. Another commented, "During tests, whenever I looked up, the teacher was looking at me. I wasn't cheating. I know other guys, white frat guys, were; but it was like I was the most likely profile or something." A professor's notes on a student's paper could also be evidence of unfair surveillance. One student put it this way: "I know the teacher was looking mine over more than anybody else's. ... I felt like he was working hard to fail me."

Negative comments. The smallest but most poisonous category of behavior that repels black athletes is a professor's making nasty comments to them, or to the class at large. Occasionally, the comments are taken as racially inspired. For instance, one student told me a professor said to him, "You people should be grateful to be here." More often they are complaints about "privileged athletes" who "think they can do what they want," and about the university's "spending too much on sports."

Of course, faculty members (as well as athletics counselors and students who are not athletes) have their list of off-putting behavior by athletes: tardiness, sitting grouped together in the back of the classroom, missing classes, not informing instructors about future absences, and not evincing interest in the material. Professors who are particularly troubled by such conduct may be less likely to reach out or pay positive attention to athletes.

No one I have spoken to has described the behavior of professors as a racist conspiracy. Still, many people believe that black athletes face only the same challenges as do white athletes, or any students. In response, I would argue that the pressures of being an athlete today are intensified by the students' dual identity and the growing professionalization of college sports. And because African-American students on majority-white campuses are disproportionately likely to be athletes, they carry an extra burden.

I have found it useful to consider campus attitudes toward players of sports. Some professors resent the money their institution spends on sports; some are bothered by all the absences and ensuing extra work that athletic events create for them; some don't value the role of sports in the educational mission. But those debates should be irrelevant to the status of an athlete in the classroom. A professor's antipathy toward athletics should not result in hostile treatment of athletes. Of course, athletes are the only representatives of sports programs that most academics meet. Nonetheless, I strongly support the advice one black athlete had for professors: "If you have a problem with sports, don't take it out on the player."

Other students can contribute to the atmosphere of lowered expectation and even disdain toward athletes -- especially if the athlete is an African-American on a campus where most students are white. At one such campus, a black athlete told me the story of a black friend -- an honors student and not an athlete -- who was asked by some white students she had just met, "What game do you play?" Her answer of "Donkey Kong" was received with surprise. Her grade-point average probably would have provoked equal amazement and further undercut the stereotype.

Ironically, when black athletes leave the gym or playing field of a mostly white college, they often encounter students like the one who told me, "It's funny, but you can cheer a guy on the court and still resent him sitting next to you in class." Indeed, many students not involved in sports assume that athletes can get away with academic murder. One nonathlete who knew I was writing this essay told me that she had it on good authority that the university sends all the athletes copies of final exams with answers on the day before the exam. She simply shrugged off my response that the athletes' grades did not support that claim.

Athletes, the victims of such discrimination, typically get counseling by coaches, advisers, and their older peers on how to deal with negative stereotypes; the perpetrators -- other students and professors -- seldom do. Obviously, it would be useful for colleges to include more discussions and literature on the subject in instructor-training manuals and workshops. But no formal process can replace simple conversations among teachers, athletes, and other students about their respective situations and challenges. Those conversations could be initiated by administrators.

Such discussions would be helpful because professors and other students seldom appreciate how physically and mentally grueling an athlete's "workweek" can be. Athletics programs accredited by the National Collegiate Athletic Association are not supposed to schedule more than 20 hours a week of practices, training exercises, travel, games, video screenings, and other meetings and activities. Yet many players allocate more time to their sport, with a rough rule of thumb being that the better the athlete and the program, the more extra hours the player spends on athletics. One counselor noted, "We often play the role of keeping these tendencies in check, which I know must be surprising to professors -- that is, telling athletes, 'You should spend more time hitting the books.'"

Moreover, sports preparation time is spent in activities that leave both body and mind exhausted. "Imagine coming to class [in the morning] after getting beat up every afternoon," one football player remarked to me. And years ago, a basketball player showed me a section of the playbook he was supposed to memorize and, of course, act on instantly during a game. I feel sure that I would fail an exam on such a complex subject even if I had months to study. In sum, the athlete's game day is visible to other people on the campus; the long hours of honing skills are usually unseen.

Obviously, all faculty members are paid to treat all students decently. But the key is whether black athletes feel they are only marginal on a campus and in the classroom. Scholarly studies suggest that the prevalence of other minority students and faculty members affects a minority student's educational achievement. Researchers agree that students in a minority group -- which could be people from a particular racial or ethnic background, participants in an activity like sports, or both -- need to feel the impetus to join the wider community of learners and that the community needs to make an effort to reach out to those students. Indeed, the major guides to college aimed at students from minority groups stress that "welcomeness" and "friendliness" are critical factors in how easy it is for a minority student to feel comfortable and to succeed at a majority-white institution.

Leonard Moore, who directs Louisiana State University's African and African-American studies program, points out that for many black athletes, "sports and entertainment are the only areas of life where they think they are on a level playing field, where they will be judged fairly by their achievements, not their skin color." As a result, many researchers concur, other areas -- like the classroom -- may be twilight zones of uncertainty, where antagonism may occur at any moment. No wonder black athletes are reluctant to let their defenses down with white professors.

White male professors may seem especially forbidding. Mark Meleney, the director of academic support in the athletics department at Florida State University, notes: "A lot of our kids come from female-headed households. They simply are more comfortable working with women in authority than with men. We have the most success with using female grad students as tutors with athletes; more trust develops quicker." Another counselor observed, "Not all but many black athletes grow up in neighborhoods where the only white males are school principals -- who they would only see if they get in trouble -- and, of course, the police."

Getting help in the classroom is different from getting it in the gym, too. Coaches typically use hands-on, one-on-one instruction, with endless repetition, and athletics departments generally offer academic-counseling services. Each day's practice is, in a sense, an examlike gauge of what players have learned. In contrast, professors may test class learning only every few months, and they usually make assumptions about what students already know and, further, believe that silence signifies both consent and comprehension.

Most colleges and universities with large sports programs have formal classes or seminars for athletes to try to improve their integration into the rest of the institution. The chancellor of Vanderbilt University was thinking along similar lines when he recently chose the extreme option of abolishing his institution's athletics department. Amy Crosbie, the academic/life skills co-ordinator of Utah State University's student-athlete services program, teaches incoming freshman athletes about class behaviors: "I tell them that it's very important for them to introduce yourself to the course teacher right away, not as an athlete but as a person. But then to follow up, keeping the professor informed about issues such as event scheduling."

That advice rings true to me. The single greatest complaint about athletes from the teachers I have talked with is not being notified about absences caused by athletic events. It's natural for a professor to blame the athletics department; I have done that myself. But most institutions, like mine, have good systems of letting faculty members know about the sports calendar. Still, it's often hard to keep track of which student in a large lecture course has an excuse to miss a test on what day for what reason. I bless the student who helps me by warning me about absences. One black athlete goes even further: "Attitude is part of it, too; I always go to my professors not acting like, 'Here, I got to be out these days, deal with it.' You have to be nice. They are putting themselves out for you."

Of course, there are many success stories in the relationship between white professors and black athletes. As one veteran teacher observed, "It's not peace in the Middle East; it's a problem that we can work on and do better on practically."

And practical matters are important. Donald R. Reed, the director of student-athlete services at Iowa State University, well remembers his own student days as a black athlete. He told me that the best professor he ever had "let us clearly know what was expected of us, let us have our own voice in the classroom, and was flexible with matters outside of our control, like when he would schedule office hours."

That last point was one that I, as a nonathlete, had not appreciated. Maybe one reason athletes were not showing up at my office hours was because at those times the students were already committed to sports activities. I now try to vary my hours to fit the schedules of the broadest profile of students. It's a small gesture, but one that reflects what should be a basic belief of students (athletes or not) and faculty members: We all belong here; let's find a way to achieve our mission together.

Finally, I should emphasize that the goals we share are not just making sure that athletes get adequate grades to pass a course and stay eligible to play, but that they acquire skills for life and work after college -- which, for most athletes, will not be professional sports. Sandy Meyer, an assistant director at Penn State University's Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes, has the right idea when she enjoins her students not to settle for being mediocre in academics any more than they would "accept being average on the court or the playing field." I can think of no better rallying cry for athletes and professors.

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication, and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 50, Issue 7, Page B7