Black Boys in Crisis: Everyone Wants to “Be Like Mike”
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
The adulation of athletes is common throughout the United States but approaches religious fervor in many African-American communities. Part of the reason for this is that a majority of athletes in certain sports are black. For example, nearly three-quarters of players in the National Basketball Association are black. The percentage in the NFL is just under 70 percent.
Young people today may not remember the phrase “Be Like Mike,” which had a catchy accompanying song and was all the rage during the height of the Chicago Bulls three-peat championship runs in the 1990s. You couldn’t turn on a television in the mid-nineties without catching a Gatorade, Chevrolet, or Fruit of the Loom commercial starring Michael Jordan. Chicago’s United Center is often called “the house that Michael built,” and the National Basketball Association’s total television revenue grew to $877 million over the course of Jordan’s career. Jordan was a goldmine for the products he endorsed, in part because of his prowess on the court, but also because people really liked him: as well as being a supremely gifted player, he was handsome and charming.
The story of Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team and then ascending to become the best basketball player of all time, with six championship rings to prove it, resonated with young black boys who were facing their own adversity. He was a symbol of how the great American characteristics of hard work, determination, and rugged individualism could combine to create a superstar. That his talent on the court was incredible goes without saying. But the deep adoration he enjoyed from fans around the world ran deeper than the points he tallied on the scoreboard or the number of times in a season he achieved the elusive “triple double.”
In a 2013 column “Do I Still Want to Be Like Mike?” Kelly Scaletta took a retrospective look at the absurdity of an entire generation putting Jordan on a pedestal. His gambling addiction, paternity lawsuits, and what was, at the time, the most expensive divorce in sports history (complete with millions in hush money for a mistress) all pointed to a man who was not a model of integrity.
Even during his Hall of Fame speech, Jordan showed a petty, narcissistic side by devoting much of his podium time to criticizing his naysayers and airing old grudges. Scaletta admitted that Jordan was a great basketball player, but pointed out that his “character flaws are many.” He summed up the Jordan idolization, which was part of a larger cultural phenomenon, by saying: “Jordan is fascinating in that he’s a perfect example of what the problem has become the way we view the American athlete. We demand them to be more than what they are, then we despise them for being what they aren’t. If they win, we forgive them for not being what they never weren’t”. Other African-American athletes who became role models and subsequently fell from grace include Tiger Woods. The problem with athletes as role models is not the fault of the stars like Jordan or Woods.
The issue with the adulation of sports figure goes beyond the hypocrisy, however. The more trenchant problem is that, for the black boy who emulates an NBA or NFL athlete, the chances of achieving the same success is minuscule: similar, in fact, to the chances of winning the lottery. There are less than five hundred professional basketball players in the NBA, for example. Many more do play in college, of course, and some of those are able to snag college scholarships, but college sports present another set of problems.
Currently, the highest paid public official in forty of the fifty states is either a football or basketball coach. In fact, the highest paid public official in the country (earning $7 million a year) is the coach of Alabama’s Crimson Tide. This indicates precisely how much money is tied up in college sports. The coaches, for the most part, are worth the money: the games and merchandise bring in many times their salaries.
However, the question we should be asking ourselves is whether sports at this scale even have a place in the educational setting. Though athletes are ostensibly required to maintain certain grade-point averages to stay on the team, college sports have become such a money mill that teachers are routinely prompted by authorities to change students’ grades or provide them with “second chances”; opportunities other students lack.
Though there are, of course, stellar students among athletes, grade fixing for student-athletes, even in high school, is a commonplace. For example, at Miramar High in southern Florida, authorities “removed two math courses from one player’s transcript; entered three classes from the wrong year for another player; and incorrectly substituted a weight-training elective for a state-required course for a third player.” The discrepancies were discovered, and the school was forced to implement changes, but similar issues are widespread around the country, and it must be presumed that most go unnoticed.
For a black high-school student who is, say, a star running back on his football team, his future may appear bright. He’s getting plenty of female attention, his coach and parents praise him, and he revels in the hollers of the crowd on game nights. However, maintaining a position on a sports team requires a lot of time in the weight room or traveling to games. This is time that is taken away from studying. He may be good enough to get into college on a scholarship. But even if he is able to maintain the grades he needs in college, chances are vanishingly slim that he’ll get picked for the NFL. So, what is he left with? A second-rate education eroded by grade fixing, a few memories of the bright lights . . . and very likely a nasty case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a disease caused by recurrent head trauma.
The core problem lies with Americans’ blind faith where athleticism is concerned. When was the last time you heard an African-American boy name an astronaut or leading genetic researcher as his role model? Where is the love for philosophers, authors, and Nobel Prize winners?