‘March Madness’ raises student-athlete issues

Every year around this time, millions of Americans catch a disease called “March Madness.” This sickness brings together people of all colors, shapes and sizes to rally behind their favorite college basketball teams and players. With roughly 75 percent of the starting players in this year’s NCAA tournament being of African descent, it is important to discuss their role in the university in the context of African students in general.

The African student-athlete brings with her/him potentially millions of dollars in UCLA apparel sales, donations and contracts; not to mention the priceless advertisement of a national championship, Final Four or Rose Bowl appearance. The African student, on the other hand, does not inherently bring a dollar value to the university. Given that the African family has a greater likelihood of exclusion from workforce participation and with the average family income around 90 percent of a comparable white family, the African student is potentially a financial liability to the university.

By understanding the historic legacy set forth by W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, Paul Robeson and Bell Hooks, there is no guarantee that the African student will be brainwashed into submitting to the American capitalist system as the university is meant to train us to do. Politically speaking, the African student is a crap shoot.

They can either become a gatekeeper of the institutions that oppress their people (e.g. Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly) or a wrecking ball crushing the pillars of injustice (e.g. Assata Shakur and Kwame Toure). It is understood that African athletes have this political potential (Paul Robeson, in addition to being an orator, lawyer, entertainer and international human rights activist, was also the first All American from Rutgers University), but we are living in a capitalist society and therefore the price tag attached to them has a greater value.

So it comes as no surprise to me that a person can support an all-African basketball team and not affirmative action. While this position is inherently racist and contradictory, it is consistent with white supremacy and the historic role of African people in the United States. Through slavery, Jim Crow segregation, share-cropping exploitation, the military and athletics African people have and will always be seen for their dollar value, not their human value.

It is OK for Africans to run up and down a court, field or around a track as long as the university is further empowered from the money they generate. The stereotype created by white America of African people as naturally good athletes has dire consequences. The excitement of seeing Ed O’Bannon dunk over three competitors or J.J. Stokes receiving and running 30 yards for a touchdown quickly turns to terror upon recognizing the intellectual, academic and political potential of these obviously physically talented people. In fact, among the most distinguished UCLA alumni are African scholar-athletes Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Tom Bradley and James LuValle (to name a few).

Historically, it was through athletics that African students were first able to come to UCLA. Given the competition, conquest and “us vs. them” nature of American capitalism and American society (of which sports is a cornerstone), institutions like the university need African athletes to survive, both financially and spiritually.

Opponents of affirmative action programs that consider race and gender, among other factors, claim to support meritocracy based on “objective” criteria (e.g. GPA and SAT scores). However, these promoters of “quality” and protectors of “integrity” are willing to waive “standards” for athletes but are not inclined to do so for the historically disadvantaged; this mentality is the same as the slave master, segregationist and plantation owner: “what can I get out of you?”

More money and efforts are funneled into programs like Midnight Basketball than Head Start or early academic university preparation programs that have higher success rates. This is devastating to the African psyche, because the message it sends is that you are allowed to develop yourself physically but not intellectually. This standard is an example of institutional racism because it devalues the young Africans’ sense of self-worth.

To those who support an all-African athletic team and not affirmative action, I hope that you become consistent in your thinking and support affirmative action. Extend the opportunities to all people so we may truly have a society that is inclusive. Recognize that there are historically disadvantaged members of society, and that this subordinate status stems from racism.

To the African student-athlete, you must fight against the inherent exploitation of university athletics. Merely educating yourself is not enough. You must carry on in the tradition of Robeson, Robinson and Ashe, for as my grandmother told me, “If you see a turtle sitting atop a fence post, you know that turtle did not get there by itself.” One way of bringing the university to its knees would be to threaten to boycott all games in the event of the abolition of affirmative action. If it is, “just do it.”

To the African student, we must also understand that we too can be exploited. We are useless to our people if we do not use our “education” to benefit the masses. The infrastructure, health and economy of African communities around the world are in dire need of good engineers, doctors and economists. We must make our education relevant to the uplifting of our people.

Palmer was the political action coordinator of the African Student Union when this article was first published April 3, 1995 in Daily Bruin –

“I wrote this almost 22 years ago, it could have been written today. Kind of sad that an opinion piece penned by at 19-year-old kid so long ago is still spot-on this far into the 21st Century.”

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