The Atlantic's Desai: College Sports Are 'Affirmative Action' Programs for Rich White Kids

To The Atlantic's Saahil Desai, college sports have too much of the wrong complexion. As a matter of fact, he writes, college sports at elite schools are really an "affirmative action" program for rich white kids.

The white make-up of college sports team rosters is reflective of America as a whole. However, Desai faults the Ivy League and NCAA Division III schools in New England for denying full-ride athletic scholarships to minority students. Ivy League school teams are made up of students who excel academically. The small Division III schools attract very few athletes who will ever set foot on a professional playing field or court.

Desai's beef is this: "Put another way, college sports at elite schools are a quiet sort of affirmative action for affluent white kids, and play a big role in keeping these institutions so stubbornly white and affluent." The D3 schools "can’t give low-income sports stars a free ride like big, Division I schools can."

Not so fast. One important detail escaped Desai's attention. The NCAA website states:

"While Division III schools do not offer athletics scholarships, 75 percent of Division III student-athletes receive some form of merit or need-based financial aid."

None of the athletes at D3 schools get a free ride. So much for discriminatory practices at Division III schools.

Desai says people typically think of college athletes as the star basketball and football players they frequently see on television (and later earning seven figures in the pro ranks). They "tend to be black. Indeed, college football and basketball players skew disproportionately African American. But, says Kirsten Hextrum, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Oklahoma, 'the black men in these two sports are not the reality of who has access to college sports.'”

Sports like rowing, lacrosse, tennis and others are more white in their makeup than football and basketball teams. Desai says these sports "aren’t typically staples of urban high schools with big nonwhite populations; they have entrenched reputations as suburban, country-club sports. According to the NCAA, of the 232 Division I sailors last year, none were black. Eighty-five percent of college lacrosse players (see photo of Cornell lacrosse team above) were white, as well as 90 percent of ice-hockey players."

The National Collegiate Athletic Association estimated last year that 61 percent of student athletes last year were white. The Ivy League's sports teams were 65 percent white, and a Division III league, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which includes elite liberal-arts colleges like Williams College and Amherst College, was 79 percent white. These are the college athletic programs mentioned by Desai; he went no further west.

Despite the fact that athletes on the non-revenue sports teams will never approach the monstrous salaries of the NBA's LeBron James and the NFL's Cam Newton, The Atlantic article dives headlong into class warfare. Hextrum says, “White people are concentrated in areas that are resource rich and have greater access to those economic resources.” Desai says elite families may spend up to $1,000 a month on their child's sports, including camps, travel and equipment. "Kids from low-income families participate in youth sports at almost half the rate of affluent families, according to a report from the Aspen Institute," he adds. And almost half of this year's college freshmen athletes came from households of $250,000 or more. But few of the non-income sports team members, and hardly any at all from Division III, will earn that kind of money as professional athletes.

Harvard professor Natasha Warikoo is also quoted by Desai: “They’re (colleges and universities) blatantly privileging already privileged groups.” 

Desai is guilty of cherry-picking elite and small colleges and universities almost exclusively in New England. Athletes of all races, American and foreign, have an abundance of athletic scholarship opportunities at hundreds of schools, large and small, all across the nation.


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