Campus / News / October 16, 2008

Speaker discusses African-Americans and athleticism

Dr. Louis Harrison Jr., Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, was invited to campus last week to impart his knowledge of the dynamic between African-Americans and popular sports culture.

The lecture was the product of the collective efforts of several Knox departments to provide answers to questions raised following last year’s publication of the ill-informed column “Racism? Nah, just some truth” in this newspaper. Harrison offered his breadth of knowledge and practical application in support of the resulting efforts to confront the issues of racial stereotypes and misconceptions through education.

It is important to point out that while the brunt of Harrison’s presentation was directed primarily at the issues facing the African-American community, the foundation of his message was colorblind. As he portrayed it, this issue is hardly a matter solely based on the stereotypes whites impose upon blacks, but rather, a much more complex oppressive force that knows no color and sees no limit to which racial demographics it can pit against one another; whites against blacks, blacks against whites, and each individual race against themselves as they allow self-subjected stereotypes to hinder their recognized potential.

Following the initial outrage of last year’s incident, many questions were raised in regard to the motive or intent of the piece in question. The insensitivity displayed within the piece resulted in a macro-examination of the college community through public forum, and it was through this that Knox discovered that these issues of racial misconception were hardly limited. The same miseducation that produced the catalyst for this reexamination had exhibited itself in the Knox community through countless examples of stereotypical judgment of varied intent and awareness.

Harrison’s presentation defines stereotyping as “the process of imposing characteristics on people based on their perceived group memberships,” and it is through this process that social judgments are most often made. Last year’s forum raised awareness of how prevalent the judgments are, and how easy it is to succumb to rash decisions based on our previously acquired knowledge.

“We look for evidence to support our already established beliefs,” said Harrison. “Evidence to the contrary is often ignored or explained away.”

While each instance stands alone, Harrison partially attributes the prevalence of these acts to a careless lack of awareness of what is actually being said.

“Most people are not trying to be malicious, but our minds resort to this way of thinking,” said Harrison.

With the amount of media attention that is given to the world of sports, coupled with the majority presence black athletes hold in the major market sports, a prevalent “athletic identity” has developed among the African-American community. This identity is largely responsible for some of the stereotypical and prejudicial thought unjustly attributed to black culture. Harrison defines athletic identity as, “the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role or labels themselves as an athlete.” The effect of this produces numbers like those Harrison cited from an annual “racial and gender report card” study from the University of Central Florida that shows a staggering 75 percent of the NBA players are black athletes. The numbers for the NFL and Division-I collegiate basketball fall slightly to 67 percent and 59 percent respectively.

While the lavish life of wealthy professional athletes is hardly something one should be discouraged from going after, this heavy imbalance clearly depicts a narrowed focus in the development of physical performance. An unhealthily elevated athletic identity narrows focus and limits perceived career options, resulting in a lack of aspirations outside of a career in professional sports. There is no need for further discouragement, as the numbers Harrison cited present enough of an obstacle: The chances that a high school athlete will reach the professional level are .5 percent or less across all major professional sports.

So who is at fault for creating this limited view for young children in the African-American community? According to Harrison: parents, teachers, coaches, fans, the media; take your pick, they are all a part of the problem. But for Harrison, the challenge lies within the athletes themselves, and he has committed himself to reversing the hampered mindset the world around them has created. As a professor, Harrison tries to impress upon his uninterested student athletes that they are more than just athletes.

“I ask, ‘Who are you when you are no longer an athlete?’ Unfortunately, I get a lot of blank stares.”

Harrison gave a striking example of the restrictive influence the media in particular creates. Tyrus Thomas, a former LSU basketball standout who now plays for the Chicago Bulls, was approached by a reporter for an interview regarding his recently injured ankle. After giving the desired details, Thomas wished to tell the reporter about the “A” he had received on a recent test and the reporter simply walked away. It is narrow-minded acts like this that can restrict student-athletes to a single identity.

This lack of encouragement for diversifying is due largely to the services and interest the observing and invested world around these athletes create, as they are willing to provide fame and fortune for them as long as the athletes produce. But what happens in the event that physical ability is taken away, most often by injury?

Unfortunately, many promising athletes are forced to face these struggles and often without much thought or preparation for what lies beyond their athletic career. It is because of this Harrison challenges his student-athletes to make the most of the educational opportunities they have been given. While he does not feel they should necessarily be discouraged from their physical ambitions, Harrison stresses the importance of “socializing African-American males into investing in their education with the same zealousness they do with their athletic endeavors.”

Ryan Cash

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