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Off the Court: Are Colleges Preparing Gifted Athletes for Life After Sports?

Some of the world’s best players will never step foot on a professional basketball court or put on an NBA uniform.
2016 NBA Finals - Game Five
A detail of a hand holding a Spaulding basketball in Game Five of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors on June 13, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.NBAE/Getty Images

It’s Game 7 of one of the most anticipated NBA Finals in recent history. Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will face Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in a playoff season that can be described as both thrilling and heart-wrenching.

Ironically, some of the world’s best players will never step foot on a professional basketball court or put on an NBA uniform.

What then of the many talented players who never make it to the professional level? What future lies ahead of them? Are our colleges preparing the athletically gifted for life without a professional career?

When Will Collier became an academic coordinator for UCLA’s men’s basketball team in September 2013, he saw it as an opportunity to change the lives of young Black men. A former student-athlete who attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., on a track scholarship, he saw talented athletes struggle and fall through the cracks.

“These guys are told a false truth and it takes them years to figure out they squandered one of the greatest opportunities of their life.”

“I had a lot of teammates at Southern that didn’t finish school. I had a lot of guys that I grew up with in high school that didn’t do much even though they were far more gifted than I was,” said Collier, 34. “I benefited from my parents having high standards from me in a way that I think a lot of young men missed out on. A lot of guys I competed with didn’t have the same level of support that I had.”

It was these kinds of young men he wanted to help. Collier pursued a career in college athletics with a goal of providing athletically talented young Black men with the same kind of guidance and mentoring he received at Southern.

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“I wanted to make sure they got everything they could possibly get out of their college experience because that's what really changed everything for me,” said Collier, a married father of two. “I had people who would pull me aside and when they found me slipping, they'd try to give me a reality check. And I just thought ‘Man, it would really be cool if I could do the same thing at the Division I level.’”

After a decade in college athletics working in various positions from student services to compliance, Collier got his chance. In the fall of 2013, he became academic coordinator for UCLA’s men’s and women’s basketball teams responsible for keeping the student-athletes in good standing with the university.

Florida Gators v UCLA Bruins
A UCLA Bruins fans holds up a foam finger in the game against the Florida Gators during the National Championship game of the NCAA Men's Final Four on April 3, 2006 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana.Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

“I looked at the famous African American alumni that came out of there and thought that place could really do something powerful for a young person’s career if they stick to their plan, do what they’re supposed to do and develop and grow as a student and I wanted to be a part of that,” remembers Collier. “From all indications prior to me starting there, it looked like that kind of place.”

But Collier’s dream job soon became a nightmare when he clashed with the coaching staff over academics and discipline. The stress took a toll on his health and Collier left the university in January 2015 after only 16 months on the job. However, his departure shed light on a bigger issue on college campuses: What responsibility do universities have in ensuring the educational success of their student athletes?

A 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education titled “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports,” looked at Black male student-athletes in football and basketball who were part of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big East Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac 12 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference(SEC) between 2007 and 2010. The report, authored by Shaun Harper, Collin D. Williams Jr., and Horatio W. Blackman, examined Black men’s representation on football and basketball teams versus their representation in the undergraduate student body. They also looked at Black male student-athletes’ six-year graduation rates to student-athletes overall, undergraduate students overall and Black undergraduate men overall at each institution.

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The authors found that more than 96 percent of NCAA Division I schools graduated Black male student-athletes at a lower rate than other undergraduates and student-athletes. They also found that Black men made up only 2.8 percent of full-time undergraduate students, but were 57 percent of football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams. In addition, they note that just a little more than half of Black male student-athletes graduated within six years compared with 66.9 percent of student-athletes overall, 55.5 percent of Black undergraduates and 72.8 percent undergraduate students overall.

“What we find shocking is that these trends are so pervasive, yet institutional leaders, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and athletics conference commissioners have not done more in response to them,” the authors noted in their executive summary. “Also astonishing to us is that it seems the American public (including former Black student-athletes, sports enthusiasts, journalists, and leaders in Black communities) has accepted as normal the widespread inequities that are cyclically reproduced in most revenue-generating college sports programs.”

Collier points out that many colleges often admit academically under-prepared student-athletes in the hope that athletic departments would provide additional educational resources for them. But more often than not says Collier, there is a lack of oversight from admissions’ offices and as a result, a lot of young Black male student-athletes get caught in the shuffle and “leave school having learned nothing.” Unfortunately, few will go on to have a career as a professional athlete.

“You have single-digit percentages of them that will legitimately have an opportunity to play at the next level and make any significant money, let alone make enough money to where not having a college degree won’t become a detrimental aspect of their employment profile,” says Collier.

Indeed, the Penn study noted that less than two percent of college student-athletes will be drafted by the NFL or NBA.

“These guys are told a false truth and it takes them years to figure out they squandered one of the greatest opportunities of their life,” says Collier. “They’re basically telling these athletes that their educational opportunity is their compensation for making all this money for these schools. Most of them are going to have to go back to their communities or somebody’s community and what good is it that they didn’t develop, grow or build any skill other than developing their bodies? I mean I look at that as exploitation.”

The authors of the Penn study point to recent research showing the ways in which colleges and universities benefit financially at the expense of Black male student-athletes and the long-term effects of sports participation on Black men’s psychological wellness and post-college career transitions. They note in the report that the pressure to win, advance to a bowl game or tournament and fill stadiums are reasons “why coaches discourage student-athlete engagement in activities and experiences beyond athletics that lead to academic and personal success.” They also note that “coaches are unlikely to be supportive of anything that threatens their own career stability.”

It’s something that Collier witnessed. The former academic coordinator points out that it’s hard for coaches to focus on the development of young men when they’re making millions. He sees it as a conflict of interest.

“It’s a national disgrace what’s happening with these revenue-generating athletes and a significant portion of them African American men.”

“I think that far too many people in college athletics are too willing to ignore the very real reality that these coaches have too much autonomy,” says Collier. “They want wins. All he cares about is preserving that check. He’s trying to protect his paycheck.”

It must be noted however, that a number of schools take the educational success of their student-athletes seriously. The Penn report highlights the University of Wisconsin’s Beyond the Game initiative, which prepares Black male student-athletes for post-college options beyond professional sports.

Collier points to his positive experience at the University of Arkansas where he worked under football coach Bret Bielema. There, Collier says, Bielema set standards for the academic coordinators and held the student-athletes accountable for their behavior. He saw the culture change immediately from one of apathy in reference to academics to student success.

“Most of these guys, let’s be real, they’re getting admitted because they're exceptional athletes. They’re not getting admitted for any other reason in most cases,” says Collier. “So when you get a Coach Bielema, you see guys overcome deficiencies, grow and take on more responsibility and leave school with a degree. He’ll suspend his best player if that young man is not doing the right thing.”

But for Collier there are too few Coach Bielmas.

Today Collier works at a consulting firm in the California Bay Area. Though he still has an interest in impacting the development of young Black men, he doesn’t believe “there is room for somebody like me in college athletics right now.”

Coaches want wins, Collier notes. He says in their quest to protect their paycheck too many coaches ignore their educational responsibility to the student-athletes.

“It’s a national disgrace what’s happening with these revenue-generating athletes and a significant portion of them African American men,” says Collier. “These dudes [athletes] become these people's weekends and late night entertainment. And they're treated as entertainment products versus people and that just pissed me off. That’s why I really got out. I just got tired of seeing it.”

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