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A free education? So what!

I won’t get into the issue of fairness.  I understand the perception: universities, conferences, coaches, and the NCAA are making truckloads of cash from athletics, but the college athletes are not getting paychecks, despite their contribution to the system.  That, on a most primitive level, just doesn’t seem fair.

I also don’t want to get into the logistical and legal challenges of paying college athletes or allowing them to profit from their names, likenesses, and fame through appearances, autograph signings, etc.  That’s not my issue either.

Rather, my problem in this recent debate over paying college athletes is that there seems to be no value placed on what the college athlete is currently getting: a free education.  A free college education seems to be an afterthought or dismissed altogether.  That sends an awful message.

I’ve spent a lot of time with young black men who truly feel their options in life are the NBA, the NFL, rapping , or the streets.  One young man told me last year that if rapping didn’t work out, he’d go back to robbing people.  That was his life plan.  It is impossible to simply tell that young man and others like him, “go to college!”  Education is a tough sell to young people who haven’t had the value of education explained to them and instilled in them early and often.

Young adults with college degrees earn more than those without degrees.  The current unemployment rate among college graduates is 3.7%, but graduates these days are leaving college with an average of over $35,000 in debt.  Meanwhile, the probability of a high school basketball player eventually making it to the NBA is .03%.  For a high school football player making it to the NFL, it’s .08%.  An education, especially a free one, is of incredible value, even for most big-time athletes.  We devalue it when we argue that college athletes are getting nothing in return.

Of course, the current debate is really about the superstar athletes in the major sports who bring eyes to the TV screens, put fans in the seats, and bring attention to their schools.  But, the national debate can often come off as if ALL athletes are being cheated because they’re only getting a free education.  I hate the message that’s sending: that working your butt off to be a scholarship-worthy athlete only pays off if you get paid cash in college.

Yes, being athletically gifted and working at your sport can lead to great rewards, but please, add free college education to that list.

I’m a big deal. Thanks for the reminder.

Just as I was losing hope, I met Laurie.  I met her in, of all places, the produce section at the grocery store.

It’s not uncommon for people to recognize and approach me when I’m out in public.  So, when Laurie first stopped me as I picked out green onions, I figured it would be another routine encounter.  Not today.

This woman was animated!  She was fired up!  However, none of this was out of excitement to meet me.  Rather, I learned, she was being her passionate self, and on this day, she was passionate about something she wanted me to know: “T.J., you’re a big deal.”  And, you know what?  She’s absolutely right.

I didn’t receive her statement pridefully or arrogantly, but just the opposite.  I welcomed it humbly and soberly because I knew exactly what she meant.  I’m a big deal, she went on to explain, because I’m the image of a black man that contrasts the omnipresent negative images and stereotypes of black men that we’re accustomed to seeing in news, film, and on TV.

I actually got emotional as this woman described her fears as the mother of a teenage son and reminded me of why it matters that he and other young, impressionable black men are exposed to an alternative.  I’ll be honest, I’ve been discouraged lately.  I want to fight the good fight.  I want to think I can make some kind of difference.  But, for every one of me, there seems to be a hundred (fill in the blank).  It feels like an uphill battle, one that we’re losing.  And, given the media saturation of those other black male images, there’s a temptation to selfishly take care of me (get mine) without regard to the responsibility that comes with my platforms.

Actress Nichelle Nichols who played the groundbreaking role of Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek television series recalls a chance meeting she had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. right after she had decided to quit Star Trek in the middle of the show’s second season.  Nichols said in a 2011 interview:

“I met Dr. Martin Luther King.  He said he was my greatest fan.  It took my breath away.  I told him I was leaving the show, and I was going to miss my co-stars, and he said, “what are you talking about?”  He said, “you can’t do that. This is something that fate has given you.  You can’t leave.  That is an image on there, for the first time, we see, the world sees us as we should be seen … as intelligent, beautiful, qualified people … you have the first non-stereotypical role in television. You can’t leave … this is what we are fighting for, this is what we are marching for … you make a difference.”

Of course, Nichols ultimately changed her mind and didn’t leave the show.  But, Dr. King’s message to Nichols more than 50 years ago still applies today:  it makes a difference.  How minorities are portrayed on television and media shapes perceptions to a wide audience, or sometimes, one teenage boy.

Nichelle Nichols had Dr. King to remind her.  I had Laurie … in the produce section.