In a 2008 commentary, “More Physicists, Fewer Fullbacks,” we argued for a reduction in Black American participation in sports. That advice went unheeded and Black American involvement in sports continues to increase. Our argument was about redirecting the lives of those Black American youth, who will not obtain college athletic scholarships and who will not capture a professional sports contract, toward the acquisition of science and technology knowledge and skills. Everyone knows that life today and tomorrow is predicated on the development and use of science and technologies—in their many forms.
But there is another reason for Black American youth to think twice about dedicating their lives to athletics—especially those who are bound for a college or university and, potentially, to the professional ranks.
We all understand that it is about the money. The goal of young Black athletes today, as it was for their predecessors, is to gain the greatest notoriety possible in high school to optimize earnings in college (“image and likeness” and other forms of compensation) and as professional athletes. Unfortunately, this probabilistic path to wealth is fraught with contributions to Black American suffering.
How so? The following is a labyrinth the end of which will explains how so.
Many of our best athletes travel paths from their hometowns to colleges/universities in smalltown America, which reflects the following characteristics:
- These small towns are largely college/university towns with populations under 250,000.
- The entire town feeds at the college/university trough.
- The colleges/universities in these towns remove all stops to cultivate a national football or basketball powerhouse program.
- The towns have large stadiums and arenas that draw fans from far and wide.
- Fan spending during football and basketball seasons help drive the economies of these small town.
- The colleges/universities in these small towns cannot absorb all the available nonprofessional and low-skill labor (even with a high volume of athletic-centered economic activity); especially former college athletes who do not obtain a professional (2) contract and do not earn high-quality degrees, and local high school athletes who do not obtain an athletic scholarship and do not possess college degrees.
- Besides the college/university, these small towns often establish themselves as an educational center with community colleges and other small colleges in tow, and they may serve as a major medical/health center for the surrounding region. In addition to their own local government, these towns may also benefit from accommodating certain county, state, or Federal government operations.
- In many cases, these small college/university towns have existed for a long time and have a Black population that has grown as the town has grown. Given the historical denial of access to higher education, the local Black population may not be highly educated and may have a history of mainly providing menial labor for public administration, wholesale trade, retail trade, transportation, or service-related businesses.
The just-painted picture is rife with problems for Black Americans. When the Black population reflects a low education level in these small college/university towns, when the non-Black population continuously claws for economic survival, Black Americans become grist for the economic mill. Also, recognizing that the school-to-prison pipeline and the jail/prison industrial complex are profitable enterprises that are managed favorable for non-Blacks by local courts, lawyers, and police leads us to the primary point of this analysis brief.(1)
But before we highlight the primary point, it is important to restate clearly that courts, judges, attorneys, and police can engage in a tight circle of operations with Blacks at the center as “criminals,” which can generate sizeable economic activity for these small towns.
Now the pressing question that hints at the thrust of this analysis brief: Why does Black America continue to feed these small towns that suck the rich blood of our youth?
When Black star athletes start their upward climb by attending colleges/universities in small towns that are perennial sports powers, they increase the probability that they will reach their money goal with an NFL or NBA contract. However, simultaneously, they help these towns survive economically. But the economic survival of these towns is not only contingent upon wining sports seasons, but also on winning a persistent hunting seasons with Black “criminals” as the game.
Is this true? We collected a few telling statistics for the top five ranked Division I football programs and the top six basketball programs (two programs tied for fifth in the basketball ranking).(2) Table 1 shows that seven of the 11 programs are at universities in small towns with populations under 250,000 (column 2). The table shows Black Americans’ percentage of the populations of these (3) towns (column 3). The key statistics underlying this analysis brief are the percentages of total arrests in these towns in 2021 that involved Black Americans (column 4) and the percentage of the total police force represented by Black Americans (column 5).
It turns out that for eight of the ten university towns for which statistics are available, Black Americans’ representation among those arrested is more than twice our representation in the population. For Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill, Spokane, and Lawrence, our overrepresentation among those arrested is appalling. Also, for six of the nine university towns for which statistics are available, Black Americans are underrepresented on the police force. (4) Black Americans’ overrepresentation among arrests signals an all-out effort to generate economic returns mainly for non-Blacks through the criminal injustice system. Black American underrepresentation on police forces signals non-Blacks capturing prime low-skill and non-technical employment at the expense of Black Americans. (5) Combined, these two outcomes generally mean that poor Black Americans with low levels of education are swept up in the criminal injustice system, which destroys their lives, that of their families, and that of Black areas of influence (communities).
Unfortunately, young Black star athletes and their parents do not see these circumstances when deciding in which college to indenture; they can only see dollar signs. But if Black athletes continue to serve as a major economic force for these small towns, which helps produce such horrific outcomes for Black Americans, how can Black America then complain about a school-to-prison pipeline and about the jail/prison industrial complex? We serve as aiders and abettors—contributing to our own demise.
Some will argue that the above-described conditions play out all across the US. True or not, we must recognize that we have a choice. What we know is that, if our star Black Athletes halt their indenture to small town predominantly White colleges/universities and head instead to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), then, at a minimum, Black populations in and around HBCUs can reap great economic benefits from these athletes’ performance. Stadiums and arenas could be expanded and revenues from television rights and bowl and playoff game appearances could rise. If managed properly, the cache of winning HBCU athletic programs could be leveraged to finance improved academic facilities and programs that could produce even higher academic achievements.
Helpless victims deserve empathy and assistance. But there should be no empathy or help for a people who knowingly (now) and purposely victimize themselves. Black Americans should begin to comprehend the economic war that we are in, and act strategically to turn the tables and ensure that we begin to win important economic battles.
A good place to start is to halt our contributions to our own demise by no longer aiding and abetting enemies in small college/university towns across the US.
1 We are not mentioning here the possibility that the criminal justice and medical systems could collaborate to produce loss of Black lives that enables organ harvesting and/or certain medical research.
2 It is worth mentioning that police departments in two relatively small southern college/university towns that are homes to the Universities of Alabama and Kentucky flat out refused to provide requested statistics in response to a “public records request” because we were not a resident of their states. Also, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama police department does not provide statistics to the FBI on the crime fighting activity in their town. The author encountered considerable difficulty in obtaining racial/ethnic demographic statistics on police forces for many of the small college/university towns that we contacted. Given the nationwide push for greater transparency between police departments and the populations they serve following George Floyd’s murder, it was expected that this basic information would be readily and easily available.
3 Population statistics (columns 2 and 3) are from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, “Quick Facts;” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045221 (Ret. 022223). Arrests statistics (column 4) are from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Crime Data Explorer” tool; website https://cde.ucr.cjis.gov/LATEST/webapp/#/pages/explorer/crime/crime-trend (Ret. 032323). Statistics on Black Americans’ representation on police forces (column 5) are from a variety of sources: Police departments’ annual reports, reports of related municipalities, and email messages from police departments. Details concerning the latter sources are available from BlackEconomics.org upon request.
4 This despite the fact that scholarly evidence indicates that an increase in the number of Black police offers is associated with a reduction in crime. See Sounman Hong (2016), “Representative Bureaucracy, Organizational Integrity, and Citizen Coproduction: Does an Increase in Police Ethnic Representativeness Reduce Crime?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management; Vol. 35(1), pp. 11-33; https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.21876 (Ret. 020123).
5 We use the term “prime” because police employees enjoy relatively high salaries, and they typically gain access to excellent health insurance coverage and to a solid retirement program.