2012. Vol.2, No.3, 261-271
Published Online July 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/sm) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/sm.2012.23035
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 261
Personal Troubles and Public Issues: A Sociological Imagination
of Black Athletes’ Experiences at Predominantly White
Institutions in the United States
Joseph N. Cooper
Department of Kinesiology, International Center for Sport Management, University of Georgia, Athens, USA
Received April 28th, 2012; revised May 28th, 2012; accepted June 7th, 2012
The purpose of this paper is to provide a socio-historical examination of Black athletes’ experiences at
predominantly White institutions (PWIs) and connect these experiences with the broader social issues
facing Blacks in the United States (US). Historically, the prevalence of racism within the US has contrib-
uted to the oppression, discrimination, and limited upward mobility of Blacks. In the US, racist beliefs
have been institutionalized formally through federal and state laws as well as informally through social
practices and norms. Using Mills’ (1959) sociological imagination as a conceptual framework, the author
provides a critical examination of the connection between the personal biographies of Black athletes at
PWIs and the historical public issues facing Blacks in the US as documented in scholarly and relevant lit-
eratures. Understanding the connection between biographies and history allows for a more holistic under-
standing of the root causes of these personal troubles and public issues. Common themes in the literature
that will be highlighted and addressed include experiences with racial discrimination/social isolation,
academic neglect, economic deprivation, and limited leadership opportunities.
Keywords: Black Athletes; Sociological Imagination; Racism; Predominantly White Institutions
“Man is a social and an historical actor who must be under-
stood, if at all, in close and intricate interplay with social and
historical structures” (Mills, 1959: p. 158)
Sports represent a microcosm of society. This popular phrase
refers to the fact that sports do not operate as a vacuum separate
from society, but rather as one part of the whole (Coakley, 2009;
Edwards, 1973a, 1973b; Sage, 1998). Often times sports rein-
force the dominant power structures and social inequalities
present within a society. More specifically, Black participation
in sports in the United States (US) has always been a contested
terrain that reflected the state of Black Americans within the
broader US society. A prime example is the exclusion of Black
athletes from intercollegiate athletics at predominantly White
institutions (PWIs) and the concurrent exclusion of Blacks from
mainstream society (e.g. politics, education, business, etc.)
from the early seventeenth century through the late nineteenth
century (Wiggins & Miller, 2003). PWIs did not integrate
Black athletes until the early twentieth century (Wiggins, 2000).
During this period, only a limited number of outstanding Black
athletes (e.g. Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson)
were admitted to these institutions primarily for their athletic
abilities. Consequently, these Black athletes encountered un-
welcoming environments that ambivalently applauded their
athletic prowess, yet simultaneously viewed them as intellectu-
ally and socially inferior (Edwards, 1994; Hawkins, 2010;
Lapchick, 1991; Sailes, 2010; Sellers, 2000).
A key factor associated with these challenges, as it relates to
Black athletes, has been the historical and contemporary prac-
tice of racism in the US (Brooks & Althouse, 2000; Coakley,
2009; Edwards, 1973b; Sage, 1998; Sailes, 2010; Wiggins &
Miller, 2003). In order to understand how racism operates
within the US society it is important to define race and racism.
Helms (1994) defined race as a “reified, socially defined cate-
gorization system that has become the basis of one form of
social identity” (pp. 294-295). In the US, phenotypical features
such as skin color, facial features, hair texture, and body struc-
tures have been used as social markers to label and identify
people of the Black racial group. Consequently, the social prac-
tice of racism emerged through the promulgation of negative
stereotypes based on racial categories. Coakley (2009) defines
racism as “attitudes, actions, and policies based on the belief
that people in one racial category are inherently superior to
people in one or more other categories” (p. 281). Both Black
athletes at PWIs and Blacks in the broader US society faced
multiple levels of racism (e.g. institutional, cultural, and indi-
vidual), which contributed to negative life outcomes (e.g. lim-
ited educational opportunities, lower career mobility, poorer
health outcomes, higher rates of incarceration, etc. (Hawkins,
Furthermore, the practice of racism against Blacks has been
commonplace in the US since 1619 when European settlers
enslaved Black Africans on US soil primarily for economic
exploitation (Hine, Hine, & Harrold, 2006). Consequently,
racism remains deeply entrenched in US social institutions (e.g.
political, economic, educational and religious) and cultural
practices (e.g. sport, music, and art), thus creating a socially
stratified society where Blacks are viewed and treated as infe-
rior to Whites (Coakley, 2009; Sage, 1998; Wiggins & Miller,
2003). The pervasive racism against Blacks throughout the US
has contributed to negative social experiences in various social
J. N. COOPER
settings including post-secondary institutions (e.g. PWIs). Thus,
understanding the history of racism against Blacks in the US
provides a more comprehensive socio-historical context for the
critical examination and understanding of Black athletes’ ex-
periences at PWIs.
Sociological Imagination: A Framework for the
Examination of Racism in the United States
According to C. Wright Mills (1959), the sociological im-
agination is a process of understanding the connection between
biography and history. Biographies occur on an individual level
whereas history involves a culmination of events on a structural
level. Mills’ (1959) contends biographies and history are inex-
tricably intertwined. The link between biographies and history
manifests in the emergence of personal troubles and public
issues. Personal troubles are events that “occur within the char-
acter of the individual and within the range of his immediate
relations with others” (Mills, 1959: p. 8). An example of a per-
sonal trouble is a Black athlete’s motivation or lack thereof to
be engaged academically at a PWI. Contrarily, public issues are
“matters that transcend these local environments of the indi-
vidual and the range of his inner life” (Mills, 1959: p. 8). An
example of a public issue is the persistent academic achieve-
ment gap between Blacks and Whites within the US educa-
tional system (ETS, 2011; NCES, 2007; Nettles & Perna, 1997a,
1997b). It is the promise of the sociological imagination that
enables individuals to understand the connection between per-
sonal biographies and broader socio-historical realities in order
to address both problems rooted in structural arrangements
For the purposes of this paper, the sociological imagination
will be used as a critical lens to examine the history of a spe-
cific group of people (Blacks) in a specific context (US). How-
ever, the author acknowledges several scholars have different
interpretations of the appropriate use of the sociological imagi-
nation in social science inquiry (Dandaneau, 2000; Denzin,
1990; Gitlin, 2000; Richardson, 1997; Spencer, 2010). For ex-
ample, one interpretation suggests Mills’ (1959) intention for
using the sociological imagination was to focus on the struc-
tural arrangements across international societies. From this
perspective, prevalent issues such as racism, sexism, and clas-
sism would be dissected and contrasted within a global context.
Another view, which the author advocates, is the notion that the
sociological imagination serves as useful tool to examine
structural arrangements and broad social problems within a
specific context. These perspectives are not inherently contra-
dictory, rather interpreted and applied in a different fashion.
This idea of multiple interpretations is consistent with the social
constructivist epistemological stance held by the author (Den-
zin & Lincoln, 2005; Lincoln & Guba, 2000). Furthermore, this
perspective supports the idea that the sociological imagination
can apply to any societal context where historical events and
structural arrangements influence the lived experiences of indi-
viduals within a given society.
The contextualization of Black athletes’ experiences at PWIs
within a broader socio-historical narrative of Blacks in the US
allows for an in-depth analysis of inequitable US structural
arrangements. More specifically, the comparison of the collec-
tive biographies of Black athletes and historical events associ-
ated with Blacks in the US draws attention to widespread
structural inequalities pervasive throughout US social institu-
tions (e.g. political, economic, judicial, educational, and reli-
gious). Similar to other facets of US society, intercollegiate
athletics serves as a site for the reinforcement of dominant
power structures (Coakley, 2009). The ability to analyze the
relationship between the personal troubles of Black athletes at
PWIs and the historical impact of public issues on Blacks in the
US constitutes an effort to deconstruct the dominant power
structure, which oppresses them (McDonald & Birrell, 1998;
Spencer, 2010). The deconstruction of the dominant power
structure, which in the US is rooted in the ideology of White
supremacy, will enable new structures to emerge that empower
those who are oppressed (DuBois, 1996).
Both Blacks with the US and Black athletes at PWIs have
experienced similar challenges as result of their social status.
These similar experiences stem from the fact that Blacks have
historically been subject to racist beliefs, which view them as
innately inferior to Whites (DuBois, 1996; Helms, 1994; Hine
et al., 2006). A review of relevant literature revealed four
common themes shared between both groups: 1) racial dis-
crimination/social isolation; 2) academic neglect; 3) economic
deprivation; and 4) limited leadership opportunities.
Intersection #1: Racial Discrimination/Social
A major issue facing both Blacks in the broader US and
Black athletes at PWIs is the experiences with racial discrimi-
nation and social isolation. At both the macro (US) and micro
(PWI) level, Blacks constitute a minority group. As minorities,
Blacks have experienced environments and social norms that
are constructed for the dominant White culture (DuBois, 1996).
Understanding the connection between the socio-historical
experiences of Black in the US and the experiences of Black
athletes at PWIs provides a more comprehensive examination
of public issue and personal trouble of racial discrimina-
tion/social isolation (Mills, 1959).
Historically, a public issue facing Blacks in the US society
has been the practice of racial discrimination. Racism in the US
has been used a social marker used to justify various forms of
discrimination, subordination, and injustice against Blacks
(Helms, 1994; Hine et al., 2006). Although other racial and
ethnic minority groups have experienced similar forms of op-
pression, the experiences of Blacks are unique. Black Ameri-
cans are the only racial group in the US to be subjected to an
extended period of slavery and to have de jure (legalized) seg-
regation laws passed against them that were fully supported by
the Supreme Court (Bell, 1992; Sage, 2000; Wilson, 1996). In
nearly every facet of American society (e.g. economic, educa-
tional, political, health, and judicial), Blacks have historically
been and continue to be significantly disadvantaged (ETS, 2011;
Hine et al., 2006).
Prior to 1865, Blacks were legally enslaved and disallowed
citizenship under the US constitution. Blacks were enslaved
solely based skin color. Following the Emancipation Procla-
mation of 1865, Blacks were liberated from legalized slavery,
yet racially discriminatory practices and attitudes remained
prevalent throughout the US. The idea of White supremacy was
the underlying ideology rooted in these racially discriminatory
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
J. N. COOPER
beliefs, which was supported by theories of scientific racism
and social Darwinism (Comstock, 1912; Jensen, 1969; Jones,
1998; Stone, 1908a; Van Evrie, 1870). This ideology purported
the misconception that Whites were innately superior to Blacks,
thus justifying their enslavement, mistreatment, and subjuga-
tion in all aspects of US society (DuBois, 1996; Helms, 1994;
Hine et al., 2006).
Similar to racial discrimination, Blacks within the US have
also been subject to social isolation (Hine et al., 2006). With no
citizenship rights, Blacks were socially and politically isolated
from participating in society with the exception of serving in
subservient roles for Whites. The passage of the Fourteenth
Amendment in 1865 mandated states to recognize all residents
as citizens and protect their US constitutional rights. Although
this legislation was significant, Blacks still did not own the
necessary resources (e.g. land and assets) to fully integrate into
mainstream US society. Blacks were regulated to substandard
housing conditions both in rural and urban areas throughout the
US (DuBois, 1996). Throughout the Reconstruction period
(1865-1877), Blacks remained segregated from Whites, par-
ticularly in the South, because Whites still controlled a wealth
of the economic, educational, and political resources (Hine et
Throughout the late nineteenth century through the mid-
twentieth century, several factors contributed to the social iso-
lation of Blacks in the US (Hine et al., 2006). The continued
disenfranchisement of Blacks, the practice of Jim Crow laws in
the South, and lynching of Blacks in the South among other
factors ensured Blacks did not have equal opportunities for life,
liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The milestone Plessy v. Fer-
guson (1896) ruling reinforced the legality of racial segregation
between Blacks and Whites and established the ‘separate but
equal’ standard. The judicial support for segregation further
isolated Blacks from living a quality of life compared to Whites.
Over fifty years later, the passage of Brown v. Board of Educa-
tion of Topeka (1954) overturned legalized segregation in edu-
cational institutions. Additionally, the efforts of the Civil
Rights movement led to passage of historic legislations such as
the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination
against people of color and women in public facilities. Other
significant accomplishments associated with the Civil Rights
Movement included the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Executive
Order 11246 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the Civil
Rights Act of 1968 to name a few (Hine et al., 2006). In spite of
these monumental legislations, Blacks in the post-Civil Rights
era US continued to face structural inequalities related to ra-
cially discriminatory beliefs and practices.
Black athletes have a long history of experiences with racial
discrimination and social isolation at PWIs (Adler & Adler,
1991; AIR, 1988, 1989; Anshel, 1990; Benson, 2000; Hawkins,
1999; Lawrence, 2005; Sailes, 1993; Singer, 2005). Since the
late nineteenth century, Black athletes have been marginalized
at PWIs. Famous Black athletes during this era such as Paul
Robeson (Rutgers University; football), William Henry Lewis
(Amherst College; football), and W.T.S. Jackson (Amherst
College; football) all have documented experiences with social
isolation as racial minorities in their classes as well as on their
athletic teams (Wiggins, 1991). The negative stereotypes Black
athletes faced at PWIs stemmed from the pervasiveness of the
dumb jock myth (Edwards, 1984; Harrison & Lawrence, 2004;
Hawkins, 2010; Sailes, 2010; Smith, 2009). The basis of this
theory suggests Black males are innately athletically superior,
yet intellectually inferior (Azzarito, Burden, & Harrison, 2004;
Edwards, 1984; Harrison, 2001; Hunt, Ivery, & Sailes, 2010;
Martin, Harrison, Stone, & Lawrence, 2010; Sailes, 2010).
Despite the fact that the dumb jock theory has yet to be sup-
ported by scientific research, the insidious acceptance of this
theory within US educational institutions has presented signifi-
cant psychological and social obstacles for Black athletes
(Edwards, 1984; Sailes, 2010; Singer, 2008). The prevalence of
these racist stereotypes within discursive practices at US educa-
tional institutions has contributed to negative academic out-
comes, limited personal development, and poor psychological
adjustments for Black athletes (Benson, 2000; Comeaux &
Harrison, 2007; Harrison & Lawrence, 2004; Singer, 2008).
Thus, these Black athletes were victims of stereotype threat
(Steele & Aronson, 1995). Stereotype threat refers to the fact
that Black athletes at PWIs academically underperform due to
the presence of increased psychological pressure (both con-
sciously and subconsciously) to disconfirm the negative ste-
reotypes associated with their academic capabilities.
Intersection #2: Academic Neglect
The second common theme present in both the literature on
Blacks in the US as well as Black athletes at PWIs is the shared
experience with academic neglect. Education has been consid-
ered the gateway to achieving the American Dream of eco-
nomic stability and overall quality of life. However, the accep-
tance of racist beliefs that subordinate Blacks has created sig-
nificant barriers for Blacks to attain levels of education at rates
comparable to Whites (ETS, 2011).This next section outlines
the history of academic neglect against Blacks in the US educa-
tional system in connection with the contemporary academic
neglect experienced by Bl a ck athletes at PWIs.
Historically, educational opportunities for Blacks in the US
have been significantly limited and often times non-existent
(Gutek, 1986; Hawkins, 2010; Henderson & Kritsonis, 2007;
Hikes, 2005; Palmer & Gasman, 2008; Roebuck & Murty,
1993). For example, prior to the Civil War only 28 Blacks
graduated from college (Willie, Grady, & Hope, 1991). Al-
though Blacks in the north had more opportunities to earn an
education, de ju re (legalized) racism remained a major obstacle
for Blacks in their quest to acquire traditional forms of educa-
tion (Hikes, 2005). In response to this de jure racism, Blacks
were forced to establish their own educational institutions (e.g.
African Methodist Episcopal (AME)), along with the assistance
of a handful of White organizations such as the Quakers, Pres-
byterians, American Missionary Association (AMA), Christian
Methodist Episcopal (CME), the Bureau of Refugees, Freed-
men’s societies, and Abandoned Lands (Gallien & Peterson,
2005; Hawkins, 2010; Walther, 1994). The first Black colleges
were established in the north (Cheyney in 1837; Lincoln in
1854; Wilberforce in 1856) by Christian missionaries (Branson,
1978; Fleming, 1984).
Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, which
legally ended the practice of slavery in the US, the US govern-
ment initiated widespread efforts to establish educational facili-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 263
J. N. COOPER
ties for Blacks (Browning & Williams, 1978; Fleming, 1984).
Many leaders in the South remained ambivalent towards grant-
ing equal educational opportunities to Blacks (Fleming, 1984).
In concert with these racist attitudes, several states passed laws
that alienated Blacks and restricted their educational opportuni-
ties to vocational training (Browning & Williams, 1978). The
racist laws also known as Black codes were established to en-
sure Blacks remained subservient labor for Whites (Hine et al.,
2006). In 1890, the monumental Morrill Land Grant Act was
passed and all states were required to either provide separate
schools for Blacks or integrate Blacks into existing institutions.
As a result, 16 Black colleges were established to provide op-
portunities Blacks in vocational areas such as mechanical arts
and agricultural sciences (Fleming, 1984). Although these edu-
cational gains were a sign of progress, these separate and un-
equal institutions reinforced the prevailing ideology of White
intellectual superiority (Fleming, 1984; Hikes, 2005; Schwane-
ger, 1969; Wilson, 1994).
Over a century has passed since Brown v. Board of Educa-
tion of Topeka (1954) and many Blacks still attend largely seg-
regated and unequal primary and secondary schools. A recent
study revealed that 39% of Black students attend an intensely
segregated school (90 to 100% racial minority) (ETS, 2011;
Orfield, 2009). Accompanying the racial segregation is the lack
of qualified teachers. A recent study by Aud, Fox, and
KewalRamani (2010) found that in predominantly Black high
schools, 25% of the math teachers did not possess a college
major or a standard certification in the main subject they taught.
In comparison, predominantly White high schools, 8% of the
math teachers did not have a college major or a standard certi-
fication in the main subject they taught. These disparaging sta-
tistics support the notion of academic neglect of Blacks in the
US primary and secondary educational systems.
Often times Black males are marginalized by the educational
system through dominant discourses on intelligence, smartness,
and academic achievement (Hatt, 2007). Dominant discourses
are present in institutional (e.g. culturally bias standardized
tests) and cultural practices (e.g. the dearth of African and Af-
rican American literature courses offered at the primary and
secondary level) (Hawkins, 2010). Many Black students as
early as preschool begin to be tracked into remedial or special
education classes (Hatt, 2007; McBay, 1992; Wright-Edelman,
1988). Consequently, this academic stigmatizing contributes to
Black students’ low academic achievement, low self-efficacy,
and increased likelihood of attrition (Hatt, 2007).
More specifically at the post-secondary level, Black athletes
must cope with the label of being dumb jocks (Edwards, 1984;
Harrison & Lawrence, 2004; Hawkins, 2010; Sailes, 2010;
Smith, 2009). The acceptance of this insidious stereotype has
been reinforced by previous research findings that Black ath-
letes who participated in revenue producing sports were more
likely to enter college academically underprepared (AIR, 1989;
Purdy, Eitzen, & Hufnagel, 1985; Sellers, 1992; Shulman &
Bowen, 2001) and less likely to achieve academic success
compared to their college student peers (Ervin, Saunders, Gillis,
& Hogrebe, 1985; Gaston-Gayles, 2005; Purdy et al., 1985;
Shulman & Bowen, 2001). Thus, reinforcing the notion that
Black males innately possess athletic talents, but intellectually
they are limited (Edwards, 1994; Hawkins, 2010; Lapchick,
1991; Sailes, 2010; Sellers, 2000).
Conversely, several scholars have argued the academic
performance of Black athletes’ is less reflective of their indi-
vidual merits, but more indicative of institutional arrangements
and educational malpractice which treat them as intellectually
inferior (Adler & Adler, 1991; AIR, 1988, 1989; Benson, 2000;
Gaston-Gayles, 2005; Hawkins, 1999; Sellers, 1992). A few
widely publicized cases of institutional neglect in regards to
Black male student athletes were the cases of Kevin Ross,
Dexter Manley, and Gregg Taylor (Donnor, 2005; Ferris,
Finster, & McDonald, 2004; Johnson, 1985; Sellers, 2000).
Each of these athletes enrolled in their respective institutions
with severe academic learning disabilities. Ross was function-
ally illiterate after spending four years at Creighton University
(Sellers, 2000). Similarly, Manley was also functionally illiter-
ate after three years at Oklahoma State University before enter-
ing the National Football League (NFL) draft (Ferris et al.,
2004). Taylor had his athletic scholarship terminated after re-
fusing to participate in the team’s practices because he felt it
impeded his academic progress (Johnson, 1985). Although
these Black athletes were confronted with severe learning dis-
abilities, they share a similar experience with many Black ath-
letes who are prima rily admitt ed to generate re venue from their
athletic abilities (Edwards, 1984, 2000; Funk, 1991; Hawkins,
2010; Sailes, 2010; Singer, 2008; Smith, 2009). Instead of pro-
viding, the adequate academic support necessary for them to
develop academically these institutions primarily focused on
exploiting them for their athletic abilities. These isolated cases
were supported by the previous studies that suggested the aca-
demic neglect of Black male student athletes remains a major
problem at many PWIs (Adler & Adler, 1991; AIR, 1988, 1989;
Benson, 2000; Gaston-Gayles, 2005; Hawkins, 1999; Sellers,
Intersection #3: Economic Deprivation
Another common experience shared between both Blacks in
the broader US society and Black athletes at PWIs is the ex-
perience with economic deprivation, disadvantage, and exploi-
tation. The economic exploitation of Black athletes at major
Division I institutions resembles the historical exploitation of
Blacks in the broader US society. Although the conditions un-
der which the exploitation transpired were vastly different, the
stratification of power, inequitable distribution of wealth and
resources, and disparate outcomes are eerily similar. In order
for Blacks to attain true equality, structural policies and prac-
tices must take into account historical inequalities within the
US society, and thus be sufficiently reformed to provide fair
treatment of all individuals regardless of race (DuBois, 1996;
US capitalism operates under a class stratification system
whereby three distinct classes (capitalist, middle, and working)
fulfill specific economic roles (Sage, 1998). The capitalist class
is typically small in number (roughly 2 percent), yet represents
the wealthiest Americans who control the means of production
(e.g. capital and land). The middle class consist of a group of
income earners who share some power with capitalists, but
remain largely dependent on the capitalist class who owns a
majority of resources (e.g. wealth, assets, etc.). The working
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
J. N. COOPER
class is the lowest class with no ownership and limited eco-
nomic resources. In the US, these stratifications were estab-
lished along class, gender, and racial identification. Throughout
history, Whites have dominated the capitalist and middle
classes whereas Blacks were predominantly members of the
working class. As members of the working class, Blacks ex-
perienced various forms of oppression, discrimination, and
economic deprivation (Sage, 1998).
Since the inception of slavery in 1619, Blacks were a source
of labor for the economic profitability of Whites. Following the
Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, Blacks continued to
struggle with gaining economic independence because Whites
retained control over the regulation of wages and prices, land,
and property (Hine et al., 2006). Throughout the twentieth cen-
tury, Blacks continued to experience economic deprivation. In
1959, Blacks constituted 25.1% of Americans living under the
poverty line (US Bureau of the Census, 1982). Between 1979
and 1980, the number of Blacks in poverty increased from 2.5
million to 19.7 million compared to the number of Whites in
poverty 530,000 to 8.6 million. In spite of the fact that Blacks
only constituted 12% of the US population, they made up over
29% of the poverty population. More specifically, in 1980, the
poverty rate for Blacks (32%) was over three times the rate of
Whites (10%). These statistics highlight the level of economic
deprivation experienced by Blacks throughout the mid-twenti-
eth century (US Bureau of the Census, 1982). Poverty among
Blacks is an intergenerational process perpetuated by structural
inequalities and class stratification (Bell, 1992). In 1988-1989,
Black children attended schools where over one-third (43%) of
their classmates lived in poverty (Orfield, 2009). In 2006-2007,
Black children attended schools where 59% of their classmates
lived in poverty compared to White students who attended
schools where 32% of their classmates lived in poverty. Chil-
dren who grow up in poverty are more likely experience sub-
standard educational opportunities, poor health and nutrition
outcomes, residential insecurity, and exposure crime and gang
activity. Poverty levels are the number one indicator of eco-
nomic deprivation. Blacks’ longstanding experience with pov-
erty perpetuates the lack of economic opportunities and limits
access to upward social mobility (Orfield, 2009).
Unemployment and annual income are additional indicators
of economic deprivation (US Department of Commerce, 1993).
In 1979, the Black unemployment rate was almost twice that of
Whites. Ten years later in 1989, the Black unemployment rate
increased to over twice the rate of Whites, 13% and 5%, re-
spectively. Given that Blacks were a racial minority (roughly
12 percent) of the overall US population, yet constituted a lar-
ger percentage of those in poverty highlights the structural ra-
cism embedded in US society. Moreover, Blacks earned less
income than Whites did over a 23-year span. From 1984 to
2007, the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites increased
from $20,000 to $95,000. Moreover, according to the most
recent census data, the household income for Blacks and
Whites was $32,303 and $49,471, respectively (DeNavas-Walt
et al., 2011). Considering wealth and income are the strong
indicators of economic stability, Blacks remained significantly
disadvantaged compared to Whites (Shapiro, Meschede, &
Several critics of the NCAA purported the structure of major
Division I intercollegiate athletics was inherently exploitive of
student athletes, particularly Black athletes (Barbalias, 2004;
Byers, 1995; Edwards, 1984; Hawkins, 2010; Lapchick, 1984;
Sack & Staurowsky, 1998; Smith, 2009; Zimbalist, 2001). For
years, Black athletes have been overrepresented in the two
largest revenue-generating sports, football, and men’s basket-
ball, while simultaneously graduating at lower rates than their
student athlete counterparts have. In 2007-2008, Black males
represented 25% of all student athletes in Division I, 60.4% of
Division men’s basketball players and 46.4% of Black football
players (NCAA, 2009). In 2008, there were 821,481 Black
males enrolled in post-secondary instiutions which was roughly
5% of all undergraduate enrollment and 36.2% of Black student
enrollment (NCES, 2009). As a result, several scholars have
suggested Black athletes were being exploited by these institu-
tions for financial gain (Edwards, 1985; Hawkins, 1999, 2010;
Rhoden, 1989; Sellers, 2000; Singer, 2005; Smith, 2009).
Polite (2011) defines exploitation as “the unfair treatment or
use of, or the practice of taking selfish or unfair advantage of, a
person or situation, usually for personal gain” (p. 2). Under this
definition, the NCAA and its member institutions exploit Black
athletes, as well as other non-Black athletes in participating in
the top two revenue-generating sports, for revenue generation
without adequately compensating them for their services (Byers,
1995; Funk, 1991; Hawkins, 2010; Smith 2009; Zimbalist,
2001). The relationship between the NCAA, member institu-
tions, and student athletes in revenue generating sports (e.g.
FBS football and Division I men’s basketball) is problematic on
multiple levels. One, the educational missions of these institu-
tions promotes academic excellence and personal development
of its students. If Black athletes are being recruited to generate
revenue for their athletic abilities, then their primary purpose is
not to receive a paramount educational experience rather it is to
excel athletically to generate revenue for the athletic depart-
ments, the institution, and other institutional stakeholders (e.g.
NCAA staff, Conference Commissioners, Head Coaches, etc.)
(NCAA, 2011a). Two, these student athletes in revenue gener-
ating sports are generating millions of dollars for their institu-
tions and not receiving even a fraction of compensation for
their contributions. This is not only ethically wrong, but also
maybe in violation of anti-trust laws enacted by Sherman
Anti-Trust Act (Acain, 1998; Davis, 1999). Therefore, the prac-
tice of athletic exploitation reveals the overemphasis of athlet-
ics over academics at a several US post-secondary institutions
presents significant problems that are reflective of the broader
social issue of economic exploitation of marginalized groups
(Funk, 1991; Hawkins, 2010; Lapchick, 1984; Sack & Stauro-
wsky, 1998; Smith, 2009; Wolff & Keteyian, 1990).
In 2011, the NCAA reported $845.9 million in revenue, an
overwhelming amount of revenues was generated from a rights
agreement with Turner/CBS Sports for coverage rights of the
March Madness Men’s Basketball Tournament (NCAA, 2012).
Although the revenue generated on “the backs of our Black
brothers” continues to increase at exponential rates, the low
graduation and high attrition rates of Black athletes remained a
major problem at NCAA member institutions who notably
promoted the prioritization of academic excellence in their
mission statements (Hawkins, 2010: p. 94). Conversely, find-
ings from a recent NCAA study revealed the most recent
graduation rates for Division I African American male student
athletes was 62% which was 21 percentage points lower than
the graduation rate of their White male student athlete counter-
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J. N. COOPER
parts (NCAA, 2011c). Although proponents of the NCAA pro-
claim these student athletes are receiving a paramount educa-
tional experience, these statistics suggest otherwise (NCAA,
2011a: p. 1). The inverse relationship between the money gen-
erated in sports, where Black males were overrepresented, and
low graduation rates of these same students suggests these ath-
letes we re bein g exploi ted for th eir athletic labor. Consequently,
the overemphasis on athletic performance contributes devalua-
tion of their holistic development (Edwards, 1973a, 1973b,
1984, 1994; Hawkins, 2010; Polite & Hawkins, 2011; Sellers,
2000; Smith, 2009).
Intersection #4: Limited Leadership
Throughout history, Blacks have been overlooked and un-
derrepresented in various leadership roles. Similar to Blacks in
the broader US, Black male student athletes experienced a lack
of leadership opportunities largely based on racial stereotypes
about their intellectual abilities (Steele & Aronson, 1995).
These stereotypes are deeply rooted in US institutional prac-
tices (Sage, 1998). In concert with Mills’ (1959) sociological
imagination, the history of Black exclusion from leadership
opportunities in US society along with the lack of leadership
opportunities afforded to Black athletes during as well as fol-
lowing their athletic careers is inextricably linked. In order to
address this prevailing public issue, it is imperative to under-
stand its origins from a socio-historical context. Once this un-
derstanding is attained, then efforts to deconstruct and rear-
range current structural arrangements can occur and widespread
empowerment among the oppressed can manifest (Hawkins,
2010; McDonald & Birrell, 1998; Spencer, 2010).
Prior to the Reconstruction period (1865-1877), Blacks did
not possess any citizenship rights and therefore unable to pur-
sue leadership opportunities (Hine et al., 2006). An example of
Black exclusion from leadership was evident in the lack of
Black representation in the US military from the later nine-
teenth century through the early twentieth century. Although
Blacks were allowed in the military after 1865, they were re-
stricted to strictly subordinate roles. In 1917, there were over
5000 Blacks in the Navy, but nearly all of them were relegated
to subservient roles such as waiters and kitchen attendants. In
the Army, Blacks were also limited to serving as road construc-
tion workers, cooks, and bakers. During World War I, only
42,000 out of the over 380,000 Black males in the military were
allowed to serve in combat. This practice was supported by
fallacious studies that promoted the ideology of White suprem-
acy. In 1925, a study conducted by the American War College
reported that Blacks were physically unfit for combat, mentally
incompetent, and innately inferior to Whites. Negative propa-
ganda such as this aforementioned study influenced a majority
of White military leaders, politicians, and journalists to per-
ceive Black soldiers as inferior (Hine et al., 2006).
During the Reconstruction era, most Black males feared
pursuing political offices for fear of retaliation from Southern
Whites. In spite of these threats, Blacks experienced marginal
progress in terms of political representation during the late
nineteenth century. Between 1865 and 1877, 14 Black males
served in the US House of Representatives. In response to
Black progress in US politics, Whites employed several deceit-
ful tactics to disenfranchise Blacks from voting such as the use
of literary tests, poll taxes, and property qualifications. Thus,
the progress made during the late 1800s was stifled by the turn
of the century. In 1900, nearly all congressional representatives
were White. The Fifteenth Amendment, which granted Blacks
voting rights, was passed in 1869, but the aforementioned bar-
riers limited Black participation. In 1965, the President Lyndon
B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited
educational requirements as qualification for voting. The pas-
sage of this law meant that Blacks could not be denied their
civil right to vote based on educational attainment (Hine et al.,
Political offices epitomize leadership roles in US society.
Local, state, and national politicians have the ability to create
laws, which govern the lives of all Americans. Throughout the
mid-twentieth to early twenty-first century, Blacks continued to
make strides in political representation, but remained largely
underrepresented in Congress. For example, from 1969-1971,
out of the 535 members of Congress there were less than 10
Black members (Amer, 2008). At the turn of the century, from
1999-2001, the number has remained between 39 and 43. Cur-
rently, African Americans account for 8.1% of the members of
the 112th US Congress, which is slightly lower than the 12.6%
African Americans among the total US population (Manning,
2011; US Bureau of Census, 2012). Despite progress such as
the election of the first African American president, President
Barack Obama, the persistent underrepresentation of Blacks in
the US Congress signifies the lack of leadership opportunities
available to Blacks in the nation’s higher leadership positions.
A longstanding problem facing the NCAA and its member
institutions has been the persistence underrepresentation of
racial/ethnic minorities in leadership positions (Woods, 2011).
Since the mid-twentieth century, Blacks have had a strong
presence as participants in intercollegiate football, men’s bas-
ketball, track and field, and women’s basketball. Yet, con-
spicuously Blacks have been underrepresented in the leadership
positions of these sports at the intercollegiate level. According
to a study conducted by Harrison (2004), in 2003, Blacks made
up nearly 50% of Division IA football players, but less than 1%
of these schools had Black football head coaches. From 1996 to
2004, only one Black head coach had been hired as of 2004,
only 21 Black males had held head coaching positions in Divi-
sion IA football. These stark discrepancies between player rep-
resentation and the lack of head coach representation suggests
Blacks are viewed as athletic commodities, but not considered
fit for head coaching positions (Brooks & Althouse, 2000).
More recently, Lapchick, Hoff, & Kaiser (2011) found that
only 11.7% of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools’
athletics directors were people of color. The 2011 season
started with 15% (18 out of 120) FBS head football coaches
were Black. As of March 25, 2011, at the highest levels of the
NCAA headquarters (EVP (Executive Vice President)/SVP
(Senior Vice President)/VP (Vice President)) Blacks made up
25% compared to 75% for Whites. In addition, 100% of the 11
FBS conference commissioners were White males. In all of
Division I, excluding HBCU conferences, all 30 (100%) of
Division I conference commissioners were White. The under-
representation of Blacks in all levels of intercollegiate athletics
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
J. N. COOPER
suggests race and racism remain significant mitigating factors
in leadership opportunities available to Blacks (Lapchick et al.,
A possible explanation for the lack of Black representation in
leadership positions in sport is the continued practice of racial
stacking. Racial stacking is “the disproportional relegation of
athletes to specific sport positions on the basis of the prescribed
characteristic of race” (Leonard, 1987: p. 403). Racial stacking
is viewed as discriminatory because players are assigned cert ai n
positions based on racial stereotypes and not only actual ability
(Anderson, 1993; Best, 1987; Chu & Segrave, 1981; Curtis &
Loy, 1978a, 1978b; Eitzen & David, 1975; Eitzen & Tessen-
dorf, 1978; Massengale & Farrington, 1977; Medoff, 1977;
Sailes, 2010). Singer (2005) found that African American male
football student athletes at Division I PWIs felt they were not
afforded leadership and major decision-making opportunities in
college or professional sports due to their race. The partici-
pants’ experience with racial stacking negatively affected their
perceptions of leadership opportunities available to them in
sports. The underrepresentation of Blacks in sport leadership
positions along with the concurrent prevalence of racial stack-
ing reinforces the dominant race logic of White supremacy that
has plagued both Blacks in sports and Blacks in the broader US
Using a sociological imagination for the critical examination
of Black athletes’ experiences at PWIs provides insight into
how these institutions can shift from simply operating as
“modes of integration” merely reinforcing structural inequali-
ties to “modes of historical change” that create true equality of
opportunity for all individuals in the US (Mills, 1959: p. 47).
History informs us that when societies (e.g. US) or organiza-
tions (e.g. NCAA), reach certain point of imbalance social
movements or revolutions are inevitable. The aforementioned
personal troubles and public issues accompanied by public
distrust of the growing commercialization of major college
sports should serve as notice to the NCAA that a revolution is
mounting unless major structural reforms take place.
The NCAA’s ideological stance operates under what Mills’
(1959) described as a Grand Theory approach. The Grand
Theory involves the establishment of social norms and social
regularities within a social system to maintain social equilib-
rium. This social equilibrium is maintained in two ways,
through socialization and social control. The NCAA’s ideo-
logical stance is rooted in the principle of amateurism whereby
student athletes participate in intercollegiate athletics primarily
for intrinsic purposes as an extension of the educational ex-
perience. The key idea is that these student athletes are not
being viewed as institutional employees and thus should not be
compensated fully for their revenue generation. From the be-
ginning of the recruiting process, Black athletes are groomed to
view themselves as amateurs and thus view any behavior out-
side the confines of the NCAA bylaws as deviant. Social con-
trol is established through harsh punishments to violators (e.g.
Reggie Bush (USC; football), Cameron Newton (Auburn;
football), and Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State; football). The
NCAA’s use of a Grand Theory approach ensures the dominant
power structure remains intact and those who are being ex-
ploited remained limited in their ability to alter the current
structure (Mills, 1959).
The psychological benefit of the Grand Theory lies in the
fact that its standards become the basis for adherence to the
power structure as well as for opposition to it (Mills, 1959).
Previous theorists have described “social norms as ‘legitima-
tions’ (Max Weber), ‘collective representation’ (Emil Durk-
heim), ‘dominant ideas’ (Karl Marx), and ‘public sentiments’
(Herbert Spencer)” (Mills, 1959: p. 36). The core issue associ-
ated with these analyses is the possession and exertion of power.
Although the Grand Theory suggests social equilibrium bene-
fits all actors, often times the main benefactors of social equi-
librium are the individuals in power. In the case of intercolle-
giate athletics, the NCAA bylaws serve as the social norms that
retain social control over student athletes, but the individuals
who benefit most from the multi-billion dollar college sport
industry are the NCAA administrators, Bowl Championship
Series (BCS) organizers, Conference Commissioners, Head
Coaches, and the institutions and their athletic departments. The
individuals who benefit the least from the system are the stu-
dent athletes who fuel the system (Byers, 1995; Hawkins, 2010;
Sellers, 2000; Smith, 2009; Zimbalist, 2001).
Moreover, liberalism is deeply rooted in the US political and
social values (Mills, 1959). In regards to social sciences, liberal
practicality has been applied in the examination of various so-
cial problems. Liberal practicality is the belief that a balance
must be retained through the small individual reform efforts.
For example, under liberal practicality, issues facing Blacks in
the US such as poverty, mortality rates, health disparities, and
academic achievement gap should be addressed separately.
Inherent in the liberal practicality approach is the idea that so-
cial problems are scattered and thus must be addressed in a
sequential fashion. The pluralist causation of these problems
requires “piecemeal reform”, but fails to take into account the
interconnectedness of social problems that are created by social
structures (Mills, 1959: p. 85). The sociological imagination
provides an opportunity to show how social problems are in-
terconnected to a socio-historical lineage and therefore must be
addressed concurrently rather than separately. In other words,
the personal troubles facing Black athletes at PWIs are not
separate from the public issues facing Blacks in the broader US,
thus both personal troubles and public issues must be addressed
simultaneously since their inextricably linked (Mills, 1959).
A recommendation for addressing the personal trouble and
public issue of racial discrimination/social at PWIs is to im-
plement effective strategies that fully integrate Black athletes
into the student body. Many PWIs have diversity or multicul-
tural offices that are designed to recruit racial/ethnic minority
students and provide them with a support system that will en-
able them to have a positive college experiences and ultimately
graduate. These programs should be integrated with the athletic
departments to establish effective programs and services to
assist this unique group of students. Another recommendation
for integrating Black male student athletes into the general
study body is to combine student athlete academic services with
institutional student academic services for the student body.
This integration would not require a total overhaul of successful
student athlete academic support services, but merely strength-
ening the partnerships between the two so they do not operate
in complete autonomy. The implementation of these recom-
mendations could assist major FBS institutions in improving
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 267
J. N. COOPER
academic and social experiences of Black athletes.
A major reform measure that should be implemented imme-
diately is the establishment and enhancement of partnerships
between NCAA, member institutions, and the K-12 US public
educational systems particularly those low resource schools to
improve academic preparation prior to college enrollment
(Edwards, 2000; Funk, 1991; Shropshire, 1997). Previous stud-
ies have revealed that a significant number of Black male stu-
dent athletes particularly in the major revenue generating sports
come from low-income communities and low resource schools
which can impact their academic preparedness (AIR, 1988,
1989; Purdy et al., 1985; Sellers, 1992; Shulman & Bowen,
2001). These partnerships could address the issue of academic
preparedness at earlier stages in a student athletes’ life and thus
enhance their chances of excelling academically in college
(Edwards, 2000). In addition, these partnerships would send the
message that these institutions are truly concerned with ad-
dressing the academic achievement gap and not simply inter-
ested in exploiting these Black athletes for their athletic abili-
ties (Edwards, 2000; Hawkins, 2010; Smith, 2009).
The NCAA and its member institutions should also consider
collaborating with other private and public organizations that
promote Black academic achievement. For example, the NCAA
could collaborate with organizations such as the Journal for
Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE), the National Children’s
Defense Fund, the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP), and the Science, Technology,
Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition
among other similar organizations. These partnerships could
focus on identifying and disseminating best practices for elimi-
nating the current academic achievement gap as well as recog-
nize schools that demonstrate significant improvement from
year to year in eliminating the academic achievement gap
among Black and White athletes. Similar to the annual TIDES
reports, this alliance could create a national ranking of institu-
tions that graduate Black male student athletes at high rates as
well as institutions that show improvement from year to year
and specifically highlight the programs they have implemented
to accomplish this improvement. This partnership would opti-
mize efforts directed at improving academic achievement and
experiences of Black male student athletes at PWIs.
A recommendation to address the economic deprivation of
Black athletes at PWIs is to eliminate the myth of amateurism
principle as it is currently applied to FBS football and Division
I men’s basketball student athletes. Student athletes are already
compensated in the form of scholarships; therefore, they should
not be viewed as amateurs (Byers, 1995; Funk, 1991; Sack &
Staurowsky, 1998; Zimbalist, 2001). This outdated label of
amateurism denies student athletes of their fundamental right to
fair compensation for their services and further supports the
notion that the NCAA is serving as exploitive cartel of student
athlete labor. One feasible option is to redistribute the profits
generated through a commercial/education model through a
revenue sharing plan that fairly compensates student athletes as
well as place a higher emphasis on educational values (Acain,
1998). This revenue sharing plan is not an all-inclusive solution
to the problem of economic exploitation in major intercollegiate
athletics, but it represents a step in the direction of minimizing
the exploitation of student athletes as well as avoiding any vio-
lation of current anti-trust lawsuits enacted by the Sherman
Anti-Trust laws ( Acain, 1998).
Recommendations for increasing leadership opportunities for
Black males in intercollegiate athletics must also incorporate
structural reform efforts. In 2003, the Black Coaches Associa-
tion (BCA) funded the hiring report card project to serve as a
watchdog on the hiring practices of NCAA Division I football
programs (Keith, 2011). The Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA) led
by John Wooten advocated the hiring and promotion of minor-
ity candidates with both the NFL and NCAA. Increasing
awareness of the hiring disparities is a key part of addressing
the underrepresentation of Black leadership in intercollegiate
athletics. The NCAA’s Diversity and Inclusion Office pub-
lished a Best Practices report outlining key recommendations
for improving overall diversity among athletic departments.
One list in the report outlines effective hiring practices such as
implementing strategies that attract diverse candidates in the
hiring process, provide job announcements to historically di-
verse colleges, and utilize grants or internships to hire racial/
ethnic minorities and women (NCAA, 2011b). College presi-
dents, athletic directors, conference commissioners, coaches,
faculty, and athletes must be committed to improving the prob-
lem in order for true change to take place (Brooks & Althouse,
2000). Noteworthy programs offered by this office include the
football professional development programs, Fellows Leader-
ship Development Programs, NCAA Postgraduate Internship
Program, Ethnic Minority Enhancement Postgraduate Scholar-
ship for Careers in Athletics, and Diversity Education (Diver-
sity Training Workshops) (NCAA, 2011b).
This paper provides a socio-historical context for examining
the relationship between the personal troubles of Black athletes
at PWIs and the public issues facing Blacks throughout US
history. Institutional policies and practices aimed at improving
academic experiences and achievement of Black athletes at
PWIs must be “sociologically grounded and historically rele-
vant” (Mills, 1959: p. 143). Meaningful efforts, whether in theory
or practice, must target the structural arrangements in the
broader US society that perpetuate existing inequalities. Dr.
Harry Edwards, renowned sports sociologist and social justice
advocate, professed this inextricable connection: “Black ath-
letes’ academic problems are in large part rooted in and inter-
twined with Black youths’ societal circumstances more gener-
ally there can be no effective resolution of the educational cir-
cumstances of Black athletes at any academic level except in
coordination with commensurate efforts in society” (Edwards,
2000: p. 10).
The NCAA and its member institutions have an opportunity
to take a leadership role in addressing significant personal trou-
bles of Black male student athletes as well as public issues of
Blacks in the broader US The implementation and constant
improvement of these recommendations could enhance current
services and programs as well as serve as example for other
social institutions (Sage, 1998). This paper is a call to action for
structural changes within the current structure of intercollegiate
athletics. If institutions of higher education are the beacon of
leadership and intellectual advancement, then these institutions
must be willing to implement radical structural reform efforts
that change the status quo of intercollegiate athletics. Only
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
J. N. COOPER
when the NCAA and its member institutions take bold steps
will it live up to its mission to “govern competition in a fair,
safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate in-
tercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educa-
tional experience of the student athlete is paramount” (NCAA,
2011a: p. 1).
I would like to thank Dr. Billy Hawkins for his input and
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