College Sports

Study: Black male athletes at UNC have low graduation rates

Graduates of the University of North Carolina fill the stands of Kenan Stadium during a commencement.
Graduates of the University of North Carolina fill the stands of Kenan Stadium during a commencement. rwillett@newsobserver.com

At one point during the most recent faculty athletics committee meeting at UNC-Chapel Hill, Christopher Faison, the coordinator of the university’s Men of Color Engagement program, spoke with passion about the relatively low graduation rate for UNC’s black male athletes.

“It’s the culture at this institution,” said Faison, explaining a report released recently by the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center that concluded UNC’s black male athletes graduate at the lowest rate among any ACC school. “And it’s not one office, it’s not one department, but it is the fact that, as the author goes on to say, the caricature, over-stereotyping of black male athletes … is the issue.”

In an interview after the meeting last week, Faison, who is black, said the low graduation rate for UNC’s black male athletes are, overall, reflective of the “reality of being founded in 1793 in the South, and all the implications that come from that.”

“It’s the ugliness of race,” he said.

Faison had just helped lead an informal, robust 30-minute discussion about the USC report, which was published earlier this month. The report, written by Shaun Harper, a USC professor who specializes in the study of race, higher education and college sports, focused on the graduation rates for black male athletes at the 65 schools that comprise the so-called Power 5 conferences.

Harper, who published similar reports in 2012 and 2016, based his findings on publicly-available data in the NCAA’s Federal Graduation Rates database. His most recent report includes students and athletes who entered school between 2007 and 2010 and graduated – or didn’t graduate – by 2013 through 2016.

According to the study, 43 percent of black male athletes who entered UNC between 2007 and 2010 graduated within six years – the lowest rate in the ACC. Meanwhile, 90 percent of all UNC students who entered school during the same period graduated within six years. The 47-point difference in graduation rates was the largest in the ACC, and the third-largest nationally among Power 5 schools.

During the UNC Faculty Athletics Committee’s discussion of the findings, Lissa Broome, a law professor and UNC’s Faculty Athletics Representative, attributed some of the disparity to what she described as “old admissions practices.” She cited data presented in a previous committee meeting, in February, that showed that UNC in recent years has admitted fewer academically at-risk athletes.

“We’ve turned a corner on admissions,” Broome said. “We just aren’t seeing that in the graduation rates yet.

The four classes that Harper used for his report, those that entered between 2007 and 2010, arrived at UNC amid the start of a prolonged saga that eventually included two NCAA investigations and more than six years of scandalous revelations, reforms and uncertainty. Undoubtedly, Broome said, some athletes left school “because of the mess that we were in.”

“So that I think impacted it quite a bit as well,” she said.

Faison, the coordinator of the university’s Men of Color Engagement program, rejected Broome’s assertion that the data used in the USC report was a “lagging indicator.” Faison said he has heard such claims before, and that such a “defense is used when we try to understand what the issue is.”

“This is as real-time as it gets,” he said. “This is not old.”

Overall, UNC’s black male athlete graduation rate of 43 percent ranked 56th nationally, among the 65 Power 5 conference schools. Syracuse, which graduated 47 percent of its black male athletes, ranked 14th among 15 ACC schools and N.C. State, which graduated 51 percent of its black male athletes, ranked 13th in the ACC.

N.C. State’s black male athlete graduation rate fell nine percentage points from Harper’s 2016 report. It was the fourth-largest decrease in the country, among Power 5 schools, and the largest among ACC schools.

Notre Dame (86 percent) and Duke (81 percent) led the ACC in black male athlete graduation rates. At both schools, though, black male athletes still graduated at a rate less than that of all athletes. That was the case at every ACC school with the exception of Georgia Tech, where 70 percent of black male athletes graduated – the same percentage of athletes, overall.

Harper, whose study also highlighted the disparity between the large number of black male athletes in football and men’s basketball and the relatively small number of black head coaches in those sports, expressed frustration in his findings.

“What I still find shocking is that these trends are so pervasive, yet institutional leaders, the NCAA, and athletics conference commissioners have not done more in response to them,” he wrote. “Also astonishing to me is that it seems the American public … accepts as normal the widespread racial inequities that are cyclically reproduced in most revenue-generating college sports programs.”

According to his study, black males comprised 2.4 percent of undergraduate students enrolled at Power 5 schools, but they comprised 55 percent of football teams and 56 percent of men’s basketball teams at those universities. Meanwhile, Harper found that 11.9 percent of the football and men’s basketball head coaches at those schools are black men.

Harper uses some of those numbers, and disparities, to argue that black male athletes face institutional racism and stereotyping on college campuses in which, aside from their teammates, they are in a great minority. At one point in his study, Harper references the words of Harry Edwards, a prominent activist and sociologist who specializes in the experience of black athletes.

University of North Carolina hosted a commencement ceremony for the class of 2017 Sunday morning, May 14, 2017 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin delivered the commencement speech.

More than 30 years ago Edwards wrote about how the “social reverberations of the traditional ‘dumb jock’ caricature,” affect black athletes. In addition, he wrote, “black student-athletes are burdened also with the insidiously racist implications of the myth of ‘innate black athletic superiority,’ and the more blatantly racist stereotype of the ‘dumb Negro’ condemned by racial heritage to intellectual inferiority.”

Such stereotypes and assumptions “continue to plague” black male athletes today, Harper wrote in his study. Faison, who has been tasked with creating recommendations to address the low graduation rate at UNC, supports Harper’s conclusion that poor graduation rates for black athletes are reflective of a broader cultural problem, one rooted in history.

“That’s all wrapped into this – the fact that our first students here came with slaves,” Faison said. “I mean, how does that not impact the way that faculty then view the very people that used to come here as help? So all of that is deeply tied together.”

ACC graduation rates compared

School

Black Male Athlete Graduation Rate

All Students Graduation Rate

Difference

Louisville

65

53

12

Notre Dame

86

96

-10

Duke

81

95

-14

Georgia Tech

70

84

-14

Clemson

65

82

-17

Miami

64

81

-17

Wake Forest

67

88

-21

Florida State

55

79

-24

N.C. State

51

76

-25

Pittsburgh

56

81

-25

Virginia Tech

57

83

-26

Virginia

65

94

-29

Boston College

60

92

-32

Syracuse

47

81

-34

North Carolina

43

90

-47

Source: University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center

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