Blacks Find Support in Sports but Not as Scholars


Back in 1990, Chip Cosby, then a junior at Seneca High School in Louisville, Ky., was a classic underachiever--a kid whose life had already begun to drift downward.

Like tens of thousands of other young African Americans attending inner-city schools, Cosby was a mediocre student with little interest in his classes. His mother, a divorced single parent and schoolteacher struggling to raise Chip and a younger sister, felt powerless. “He didn’t have very good grades and he wasn’t very motivated to study,” she says.

But one thing set Chip apart from his classmates: He was 6-foot-5 and weighed 210 pounds.

Because of those physical qualities, he was about to have his prospects for a better life transformed. His size made Cosby eligible for a special brand of affirmative action--he became a beneficiary, in fact, of the most comprehensive, well-financed and widely supported such program in the country: the system for finding and developing black athletes.

At a time when social service programs are falling beneath budget axes all across the country and the nation is turning an increasingly critical eye on any program that gives special help to one group over another, affirmative action for athletes--especially black athletes--has energy to burn. And, while everyone knows what sports stardom can mean for the next Shaquille O’Neal or Barry Bonds, the system works just as tirelessly for those who will play only at obscure colleges, junior colleges or even high schools.


No schoolyard, gymnasium or neighborhood playground is too remote for its scouts, no potential player too troubled to discourage its recruiters.

The scope of the system for nurturing disadvantaged athletes stands in stark contrast with the nation’s comparatively meager, almost Darwinian approach to minority youths with other kinds of potential talents. Whereas coaches, scouts and sports recruiters prowl the sidelines of children’s games all across the land, carefully watching what players do and figuring how to make them better at it, no similar infrastructure exists to coach talented minority youngsters in the classroom or ease their paths into less glamorous careers.

Where coaches routinely work extra hours to find or develop potential point guards or middle linebackers in minority communities, it is harder to find English teachers doing the same thing with large numbers of promising young writers.

“School sports has an infrastructure based on volunteers,” says Peter Cappelli, co-director of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Work Force at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Academic programs in the schools don’t have that infrastructure.”

Rewards for Playing

What is troubling about the imbalance between the effort made on behalf of minority athletes and the resources expended on their non-athletic compatriots, experts say, is not that athletes are undeserving or that helping them is wrong. The problem is that the nation pays a heavy price--economically and otherwise--for its failure to better develop non-athletic talent.

“It seems like the only place African Americans are rewarded is for playing,” says Charles S. Farrell, who heads the National Rainbow Coalition’s Commission for Fairness in Athletics. “It’s almost like we are not thought to be capable of doing other things. And the truly sad part of the problem is that kids see this on television and hear about the athletes’ endorsements and salaries, then they begin to believe their only chance for success is becoming the next Michael Jordan.”

Although white athletes are also recruited heavily and highly prized, experts say whites have more varied career opportunities--and more of them--than black athletes, who often view sports as a place they can compete on relatively equal footing with whites. In sports, African Americans see a system where three-point baskets and six-point touchdowns are defined by the rules of the game, not by the potentially subjective opinions and evaluations that define success in some other fields.

According to the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, 77% of the players in the National Basketball Assn. are black, 68% of the players in National Football League are black and 16% of major league baseball players are black.

“What it really boils down to is the kid playing sports has something to trade,” says Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who has studied and written extensively on the impact of racial attitudes on black and inner-city Americans. “Athletic ability is immediately seen as a resource to negotiate his way into the wider group.”

But the success of black athletes raises a corollary question: If business and the professions cultivated talent in the same aggressive way, wouldn’t African American students be attracted to other opportunities and be swept much faster into better jobs and positions?

Although it is seldom thought of that way, affirmative action has always existed for millions of young whites. In much the same way that blacks are steered into sports careers, whites have relied on social connections, school ties and the old boy network for preferred status in a variety of career options: Dad’s old roommate on the admissions committee at Stanford, Uncle Bernie’s contacts in the furniture business, or Cousin Charlie, who can get you into the plumber’s union.

As it is, blacks constitute 12.6% of the population, yet they are only 3.7% of all physicians, 3.4% of all lawyers and 6.9% of all managers and professionals in the United States. They account for 7.9% of auto mechanics and 6% of electricians.

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of blacks between the ages of 18 and 24 who finish high school has shown moderate improvement--from 66.8% in 1973 to 74.8% in 1993, the last year for which figures are available, according to the American Council on Education.

The percentage of blacks earning bachelor’s degrees, meanwhile, has stagnated. In 1992, African Americans earned 6.4% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded, compared with 86.4% awarded to whites, a ratio that was virtually unchanged over 10 years.

John Bishop, chairman of the human resource studies department at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, argues that the failure of employers and other business leaders to embrace academic programs at inner-city high schools fuels “a different ethos for athletics than exists for academics” in those communities.

Bishop says many black students are convinced that excelling in sports will more likely lead to a better life and that earning good grades is relatively worthless. The ladder to success in athletics is clearly defined and aided by eager recruiters all along the way, while academic progress is a much more murky path.

“If you view it through [the students’] eyes, it makes perfect sense,” Bishop says, to ignore the books in favor of hoops.

How the System Works

The case of Chip Cosby illustrates in detail how the system works. In particular, it shows how potential athletes--those of modest talents as well as sure-shot superstars--tend to get several bites at the apple.

When Cosby was a sophomore at Seneca High, he was a less-than-outstanding student but he was convinced that the NBA was in his future. “I was a strong kid, bigger than most 16-year-olds,” he says, adding that he sat out his sophomore year and made the high school basketball team in his junior year with little trouble. “I remember people watching me play, saying things like, ‘Look at his shoulders. He’s a big body who could offer some school a lot of rebounding and size.’ And I was thinking I wanted to play basketball and be a star.”

Like most mothers, Patti Cosby cheered as his team played. She also privately worried that if his grades didn’t improve, he wouldn’t qualify for college.

Midway through his junior year he got into a dispute with his basketball coach and quit the team. That might have ended his “Hoop Dreams.”

Instead, a man who attends his church noticed his absence from the Seneca roster and asked why. Cosby’s explanation led to the man’s offer to put him in touch with someone he knew at Kentucky Country Day, a predominantly white private school with a great academic record. The school was looking for a tall, aggressive and talented center for its basketball team.

A blur of activity followed, ending with Cosby’s agreeing to attend the school on what amounted to a scholarship to play high school basketball.

“I remember sitting in the school’s office talking to the headmaster, who was telling me all these good things about the school,” Cosby says. “As far as dribbling a basketball, they made me feel I could do so much for them. They didn’t go into detail about the academic program at KCD except to say that it was a good school and what a great opportunity it would be for me.”

KCD officials even offered to defray most of the $6,000 annual tuition. Patti Cosby says she paid less than $1,000 for Chip to attend KCD.

“Since it meant I could play basketball, I was eager to go. And since they were providing tuition to a school with an excellent academic program, my mom was happy for me to go,” Cosby said.

Cosby helped lead the school to a 26-5 record, beating many of the more traditional powerhouse public school teams and making an impressive run in postseason tournaments. But after the season, he received few offers to play college basketball.

Nonetheless, the boost he got from graduating from the elite private school was enough to propel him forward. Today, Cosby is a third-year journalism major at the University of Kentucky and hopes to become a sportswriter. Since giving up on basketball, he says few people have expressed interest in his future with the intensity he knew as an athlete.

“To America, blacks have the most to offer when they’re dribbling a basketball,” he says. “I don’t think anybody really cares for an African American unless he’s an athlete.”

Supply and Demand

For some, all this is simply market economics.

“This is nothing but supply and demand,” says a Washington attorney and professional sports agent who asked not to be identified. “There are more agents registered with the NBA than there are players in the NBA, by a lot. That means the money is so large that these agents have nothing to lose by recruiting all the way down to the high school level.

“Consider, for example,” he continues, “at age 17, you are three years away from being a millionaire as an athlete or entertainer if you can make it to the NBA. People can afford to spend time with you because they know there is going to be a return for them.

“If you are a smart kid and can conjugate verbs and count well, you might go on to be a doctor or something. But no one is willing to invest time on that because there is no payoff. It might be years, by the time you are 40, before you make your first million. Who can wait for that?”

As the Cosby case illustrates, even players who will never make the NBA have significant market value. They can make the difference between winning and losing seasons for a high school or junior college--which can be the difference between keeping and losing a job for a coach.

The market sees little comparable value in the academically promising black student, for whom early intervention is more likely to produce a stockbroker or pharmacist; for this student, nurturing comes very late in his or her development--if it comes at all.

Many, who are not outstanding athletes or merit scholars, go through grade and high school largely unnoticed and without much encouragement to develop what skills or talents that may rest dormant.

Marco Huertaeo, for example, is finishing his sophomore year at Washington and Lee High in Arlington, Va., with a B average.

After graduation, he would like to go to college to study computers, but expects he is more likely to enter the military. “If I get a scholarship I’d prefer to go to college,” he says, sitting on a wall outside the main entrance to his school shortly after the end of classes. But he says that none of his teachers or guidance counselors have talked with him about how to apply for scholarships.

Anderson says racial attitudes mingle with economic incentives to create an atmosphere that helps blacks excel in sports and not in other professional areas.

Athletics and entertainment are areas in American life where blacks have established what Anderson labels “a niche of credibility” that serves as a foundation for the society’s expectations of appropriate behavior by African Americans.

“A young black man has more credibility stereotypically as a basketball player and a lot of people will give him benefit of the doubt to explore that,” Anderson says. “But when it comes to scholarship or jobs that might compete with white Americans’ view of what belongs to them, . . . oftentimes the young black man is not given the benefit of the doubt. If he insists on being in that field, he very often has to campaign for credibility and has to demonstrate that he deserves to be taken seriously for the opportunity.”

For example, Anderson, who is black, says that when he plays basketball on public courts with whites, he is often one of the first players selected. By comparison, when he tells white people that he is a sociology professor, he is frequently asked if he teaches graduate students.

“I get that question from white strangers so much because they can’t imagine that’s what I do--teaching graduate students announces you have arrived as a professor,” he says. “But nobody questions whether I can play basketball. They just assume I can play because I’m black and that makes me the one they want on their team.”

Hunting Ground

Forty-four years ago, when Bill Butler began coaching basketball in the Washington area, the city’s public schools were segregated and major college coaches ignored athletes at black high schools. Today, Butler, 72, says he has sent more than 200 black youths from Washington to major colleges in 38 states on basketball scholarships, making this area one of the nation’s most competitive hunting grounds for college talent.

“I made it my mission in life to champion the cause of the least of those, the black kids who never got discovered,” says Butler, a retired Labor Department employee who helped organize a Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club in the city’s impoverished black neighborhoods.

“When I started, the kids didn’t care about academics because they knew they weren’t going to get a scholarship. Their only outlet was coming to the club and playing sports.”

Butler says all that began to change after he took his basketball team to watch the 1968 Final Four tournament, played at nearby Cole Field House at the University of Maryland. The youths were impressed by the grandeur of big-time college basketball. More important, Butler got a chance to persuade Jack Gardner, then head coach at Utah, to visit a practice for the D.C. All-Stars game, a postseason event for the city’s black teams.

Gardner was so impressed by the quality of play, he signed four of Butler’s players to scholarships.

“Those kids had D averages,” Butler says. “They couldn’t have gone to Utah right away, so Jack Gardner arranged for them to attend junior colleges before they went on to play at Utah.”

Other coaches saw Butler’s proteges play and asked around to find out where they could get similar players. “Coaches would call me from places I had never heard of before and I would always have somebody to send to them,” Butler says with a broad, proud smile. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just developed my own affirmative action program.”

However, he adds, “almost nobody has ever called me to talk about a kid without talking about sports.”

One exception is Tony Gould, who volunteers with the Greater Washington Boys and Girls Club. He called Butler several years ago to solicit help in identifying youths from Butler’s club who might be interested in attending Woodberry Forest School, an all-boys boarding school near Charlottesville, Va.

Gould, 54, a commercial real estate broker in Washington, is on the Woodberry board of trustees. “I went to the school in the 1950s and it was all white,” says Gould, who is white. “Then I went to Brown University and there were only two blacks in my class. Since then I’ve wanted to do everything I could to help give black students an opportunity to get away from the hard, mean streets to improve themselves.”

Since meeting Butler four years ago, he has helped eight Washington-area boys go to Woodberry, which has an enrollment of about 360 in grades 9-12. “I haven’t just targeted athletes,” he says. “I go around looking for the most talented young people who wouldn’t have the opportunity for a good education without some outside help.”

And he is troubled by the recruiters for sports-addled prep schools and big-time colleges.

“I call them the bird dogs, sitting on the sidelines of seventh- and eighth-grade Police Athletic League or Little League games” waiting to pounce on the young players, he says.

“In the majority of the cases, I believe they are looking for athletic talent for the teams. The affirmative action they’re doing is the kind that’s going to win games and help the coach renegotiate contracts.”

Times staff writer Jennifer Corbett contributed to this story.


About This Series

The Times examines affirmative action, a policy that has left its imprint on the workplace and college campuses over the last 30 years. With some now questioning whether giving preferences to minorities has been fair to all, this series, which will appear periodically throughout 1995, will measure its impact on American institutions, ideas and attitudes.

* Previously: Why affirmative action became an issue in 1995, its legal underpinnings, its impact on presidential politics, the difficulties of defining a minority, the views of its beneficiaries, a Times poll showing ambivalent attitudes on the issue, how informal preferences have molded American life, the mind at work in racial stereotyping and the evolution of diversity programs in the workplace.

* Sunday: Ever since Al Campanis’ ill-spoken comments about blacks and their ability to succeed in sports management, coaching and management positions in major league basketball, baseball and football have diversified at a rate that outpaces the rest of American businesses.

* Monday: A look at minor league baseball, a place where there are still pockets of sexism and stereotypes, and its efforts to diversify.

* Today: How ultra-efficient recruiting of minority athletes at all grade levels has put a premium in inner city neighborhoods on developing athletic, as opposed to academic, skills.