Dropping the ball

Schools stereotyping black students

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:14:11 PM

The uproar surrounding coach Ken Carter’s decision to bench his undefeated basketball team until they improved their grades inspired the hit movie, Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson.

But the real controversy, according to York University professor Carl James, lies in the assumptions about race, sports and education that fueled criticism against the coach’s unusual approach.

“I am talking about the responsibility of the schools, coaches, teachers, administrators and parents to ensure student athletes get a good education,” he says. “Everyone should be concerned about academic performance, and not just about having a winning team.”

In his new book, Race in Play: Understanding the Socio-Cultural Worlds of Student Athletes, James shows how black students are stereotyped as excellent athletes who shouldn’t be expected to excel in class.

He points out, using his own son’s experience, that when a tall black student is spotted in grade 9, he may well find himself recruited by the school’s coach without ever having dribbled a ball.

The upshot of the assumption that black students should be the bedrock of school sports teams is that it encourages teachers and coaches to go against parents’ – particularly immigrant parents’ – desire that their sons and daughters get an education before anything else.

These racial stereotypes may also create unique tensions for black students who aren’t very athletic.

“They can feel, ‘If I don’t match up to those expectations, maybe it’s because I am not “black” enough’,” James points out.

While he feels there are real risks that young black men in particular will be unthinkingly slotted into the “sports” stream of their high schools, James also believes that a passion for sports can hold the key to academic success. For example, he says, a mathematics course could use the physics of basketball to teach principles in calculus or algebra.

The next step in James’ research is to see how well the dream of an athletic scholarship at a US university plays out for the lucky few black Canadian athletes who have won them.

“A lot of kids, often with the blessing of their teachers and coaches, plan their entire future around a career in professional sports. But the odds of succeeding are similar to winning a lottery,” he says, adding that at the moment there is no data to prove the elusive US scholarship really leads to the NBA.

Carl James's research on diversity and education has been supported through SSHRC’s Community-University Research Alliances program and the Metropolis Project.