I have often been amazed by the amount of time and energy many parents invest in their sons’ athletic careers. They attend all the games, travel hundreds of miles to take them to tournaments, and scold them if they slack off during practice drills. However, those same parental cheerleaders are often missing in action when it comes to educational oversight. They may spend hundreds of hours in the bleachers, but they don’t take 60 minutes to review their children’s academic standing.
Too many have become consumed by what I call the “ESPN culture,” focusing on athletic highlights 24/7. Our young black men have been filled with hoop dreams of NBA glory and, worse, their parents are caught up in the same grand delusion. This viewpoint comes at a time when an entire generation of African American males is at risk. A 2008 report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education concludes that “black males have consistently low educational attainment levels, are more chronically unemployed and underemployed, are less healthy and have access to fewer healthcare resources, die much younger, and are many times more likely to be sent to jail for periods significantly longer than males of other racial/ethnic groups.”
The same study reported that more than 50% of black males do not graduate with their high school class and the 10 states with the lowest graduation rates—including New York, Georgia, Illinois, and Michigan—enroll more than 1.6 million black male public school students, roughly 40% of that population. Other reports have revealed that 75% of college-age African American men are not registered at any institution of higher education, and that one in nine black males ages 20–34 is incarcerated.
We can ill afford to throw up our hands and justify such poor performance as a consequence of economic, cultural, and societal factors: a declining public education system, a widening technology chasm, an ever-expanding income gap as more and more U.S. industries relocate overseas, and an increasingly vulgar popular culture that devalues scholarship and glorifies gangersterism. Despite the fact that the nation has entered the age of Obama, more and more black men are being shut out of the promise of opportunity and pushed into society’s margins. Simply put, we are in a state of emergency.
I am not talking about having black males completely abandon the basketball court or football field. In fact, I was a student athlete who played basketball during my high school and collegiate years. My involvement with sports was helpful in my personal and professional development. I learned the importance of discipline, teamwork, competition, and leadership. But my academic career never took a backseat to dunking a basketball.
That’s why today I place athletics in its proper context and use it as a means to build self-esteem, instill values, and spur academic achievement among young people. Beyond being engaged in my own sons’ extracurricular activities, I spend a considerable amount of time coaching a group of predominantly African American males as part of an AAU basketball team. Of course, I want them to be dexterous, competitive players, but it is far more important to me that they grow into educated, productive, and successful citizens in the game of life. In fact, my No. 1 rule is that all of them must achieve academically before gaining consideration for team membership, and throughout the season, they must maintain or improve above-average GPAs.
Solving the problems facing young black men requires us to be vigilant and committed at all levels. I urge you—whether you’re a parent or not—to apply your own expertise to the cultivation of excellence among our young people. Look for opportunities to inspire and encourage young minds and stoke their ambitions. Promote education, entrepreneurial skills, and smart money management as vital tools they need to achieve life goals. Help lay the foundation for stable communities that allow them to flourish. When they’ve been able to apply their talent and reach their full potential in the classroom and workplace then we’ll all have something to cheer about.