02 Dec 2015

sports, opportunity, and the South

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Some of my fondest memories as a high school teacher and basketball coach are of when I worked with remarkable students, teachers, leaders, and families in Montgomery, AL in the 1990s. These students were bright, gifted, warm, enthusiastic, hard-working, and endearing. But beyond the state titles that the basketball team won, there was little to be excited about in parts of the local community — which were beset by poverty, racism, and systemic dysfunction. When our great high school athletes left the basketball court, many of them went home to places that offered little long-term hope.

Similarly, some of the best high school sports today remains in the South. High school rosters in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina are full of elite talent. And while college coaches hustle to recruit them and fans flock to watch them play (now and later in college), there is considerably less urgency to improve the communities where they live.

In comparison with the rest of the US, these states suffer from the highest rates of child poverty, children living with one parent, and households without a bank account. And they are also at the bottom for male life expectancy, median household income, and upward mobility for poor children.

So, if we are interested in advocating for the rights and opportunities of student-athletes, why do we focus so much public attention to critiques of the NCAA and higher ed institutions? Those playing for the Crimson Tide this weekend are in significantly better places than their hundreds of former classmates and teammates who are languishing in hometowns that offer little hope. College sports systems are not perfect — all student athletes deserve just reward. But the injustices that students experience in the first 18 years of their lives are more urgent and warrant far more attention.



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