Issue 10

Athletes And Entertainers

Can Not Save Black America

In general, there are two ways to be successful in America. One is through the use primarily of one’s mind. The other is through the use primarily of one’s body. During almost the entire four centuries that blacks have been in America, their only opportunities for success have been limited to the use of their bodies. Indeed, the measurement of a black American’s worth has historically been based almost exclusively on their physical abilities.

The “best” male slaves could pick the most cotton and chop the most wood. The “best” female slaves could do the most chores and deliver the most live births. Various personality traits were also important. The “best” slaves were docile, cooperative, and only as smart as they needed to be to pick cotton, chop wood, or to have and care for babies.

The most intelligent slaves were usually the most worrisome slaves. Aggression could be beaten out of most slaves and cooperation could often be beaten into them. But a knowledgeable slave knew when to be docile and when to be cooperative. A knowledgeable slave also knew the most opportune time to try to escape or to plan a slave revolt. This, of course, was the reason that it was illegal to educate slaves. As a slave owner, it was permissible to beat a slave, to rape a slave, to cut off a slave’s foot, or to work a slave to death. However, it was illegal to arm a slave or to teach a slave to read and write.

White America clearly understood the relationship between knowledge and power. And proponents of Slavery knew that the perpetuation of Slavery depended, first and foremost, on their ability to keep black Americans as uneducated and ignorant as possible.

During 246 years of Slavery, America declared that black Americans had no value except for their physical abilities. Not only did they say it, for twelve successive generations they demanded that black Americans accept as fact that they had no intellectual aptitude. How did this affect the mindset, and even the psyche, of black America during Slavery? Did black Americans also come to measure their worth based primarily or solely on their physical abilities?

If this indeed was the mindset of black America after Slavery ended, the Jim Crow era, from 1866 to 1968, did little to change it. Although educating black Americans was not illegal during the Jim Crow era, it certainly was not one of America’s priorities. At best, black Americans could attend segregated schools that were measurably inferior to white schools. Nor could black America afford to make formal education its highest priority. Black Americans had their hands full just trying to make do in a world where white Americans routinely did all they could, legally and illegally, to try to keep black Americans “in their place.” Under these circumstances, education had to be secondary to day-to-day survival.

For the small percentage of black Americans who managed to obtain a quality formal education during the Jim Crow era, opportunities were limited in an American society characterized by racism and segregation. Still, there were a number of black American successes. However, most of these successes, especially the ones that most black Americans heard about, were not successes as a result of intellectual pursuits. They were successes that were the results of the physical abilities of black Americans.

The Jim Crow Era : Making So Much From So Little
In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first black American to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. In 1974, Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s career home run record. During that time span, there were also the illustrious careers of Jesse Owens, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Bob Beamom, and Willie Mays. The list also includes Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Ernie Banks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, and a host of other celebrated black athletes.

Bert Williams, the first great black American entertainer, was earning one hundred thousand dollars a year by 1915. In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first black American actor to win an Academy Award. During that time span, there were also the distinguished careers of Lincoln Perry, Josephine Baker, Hattie McDaniel, Tim Moore, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. The list also includes Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Pearl Bailey, Della Reese, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and a host of other renowned black entertainers.

There were, of course, black Americans who were not athletes or entertainers who also left their mark on history during the Jim Crow era. However, if one is looking for celebrated successes by black Americans during the Jim Crow era, the overwhelming majority will be found in areas requiring physical ability rather than formal education and knowledge.

This assertion can be tested by compiling a list of one hundred black Americans, not including athletes and entertainers, who were “famous,” “influential,” or “role models” during the Jim Crow era. Compiling such a list would be difficult for the average American. On the other hand, compiling such a list of white Americans would be relatively simple, starting with the twenty white men who served as president of the United States from 1866 through 1968.

How is this disparity to be explained? Is it the result of America’s self-fulfilling expectation that black Americans can only excel in physical and not intellectual endeavors? Is it the result of black Americans buying into this notion after having it drummed into their heads for hundreds of years? Is it simply the results of Jim Crow era racism that limited opportunities for black Americans to the sports and entertainment fields? Can the disparity be explained as a combination of these and other factors? Whatever the answer, the Jim Crow era ended four decades ago. Today, the relevant question is, how difficult would it be to compile a list of one hundred black Americans, not including athletes and entertainers, who were “famous,” “influential,” or “role models” during the Equal Opportunity era that began in 1969?

Determining the answers to these and other questions is of critical importance. Doing so may help to dispel a myth that is largely a product of the Jim Crow era. This myth is that pursuing a career in professional sports or the entertainment field is an effective, viable, or even a reasonable way for black Americans to try to attain success in America.

A Ticket Out Of The Ghetto
It is true that one hundred or even as little as fifty years ago, the limitations imposed on black Americans by a racist society made the pursuit of success through the use of one’s physical abilities a reasonable alternative. Note, however, that it was never a great alternative. But, given the barriers and limited options for success, it was a reasonable alternative for black Americans to depend on their physical abilities – in the sports or entertainment fields, or just working in a steel mill or a factory.

However, in the 21st century, the idea of being successful in America by using one’s physical abilities is increasingly out of step with the economic realities of the 21st century. And no where is this more evident than in black America’s continuing belief that a career in sports or the entertainment field is a good or even a reasonable career option. This myth is clearly a reflection of the mindset imposed upon black America during Slavery and the Jim Crow era.

Black America must immediately do all that it can to dispel this debilitating myth. In the Equal Opportunity era, attempting to use sports or entertainment as one’s “ticket out of the ghetto” is a nonsensical proposition. In the Equal Opportunity era, it is more straightforward and infinitely more attainable for a black American to become a successful accountant or small business owner than to become even a lowly-paid minor league professional athlete or to eke out a living as a professional entertainer. In the Equal Opportunity era, it is more straightforward and infinitely more attainable for a black American to become a successful, wealthy physician or attorney than to become a well-paid professional athlete or entertainer.

Hoop Dreams ($$$$$)
The average salary in the NBA (National Basketball Association) for the 2007 – 2008 season was 5.3 million dollars. This was the highest average salary of the major American sports leagues. The minimum salary in the NBA ranged from $427,000 to 1.2 million dollars, depending on a player’s length of time in the league. Michael Jordan’s record NBA salary during the 1997 – 1998 season was 33 million dollars.

At 23.7 million dollars, Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics had the highest salary for the 2007 – 2008 season. In fact, approximately twenty-five percent of total NBA salary is paid to the top twenty players in the league. An example of this disparity in salaries was the payroll of the 2007-2008 Boston Celtics. The combined salaries of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen totaled 56.1 million dollars, seventy-five percent of Boston’s 75 million-dollar team payroll. The remaining twenty-five percent, 19 million dollars, was paid to the eleven other players on the team’s roster. This sheds light on the fact that the NBA’s “average salary” is skewed by the large salaries paid to a few superstars. That is, the “median salary” was considerably less than the 2007 – 2008 5.3 million dollars average salary.

In any case, the financial rewards for being a NBA superstar may be impressive, but no more so than winning a multi-million dollar lottery jackpot. One difference is that becoming a NBA superstar requires talent, dedication, sacrifice, hard work, and a great deal of luck. Winning a multi-million dollar lottery jackpot only requires a great deal of luck. The other difference is that thousands of Americans become millionaires each year as a result of winning the various state lotteries. Of the sixty new players who are currently drafted by the NBA each year, less than half are likely to earn more than a couple of million dollars during their entire NBA careers.

Welcome To The NBA
Whatever one’s financial rewards are for playing in the NBA, one must first make it to the NBA. And after years of hard work, sacrifice, and unwavering dedication, the final step is the annual draft of college players.

In varying degrees, these athletes are very familiar with this selection process. Almost all of them were the best or second best players on their junior high school teams and were the only ones selected to play on their high school teams. Of the thousands of high schools with basketball programs, there are only a few very good teams. These are the teams that win most of their games, win their divisions, or win their state championships. Again, since there are many times more high schools than colleges, only the one or two best players from these teams are selected to play on college teams. And, by the end of their college careers, there will only be the one or two best players on the best teams who will have demonstrated that they may have enough talent to play basketball on a professional level.

These “best of the best of the best” athletes make up the hundreds of players who are eligible for the NBA draft each year. However, of these hundreds of the best basketball players in America, only the best one hundred or so are even remotely considered for employment by the NBA. Of these, only the best five or ten are deemed “can’t miss” prospects and can be expected to earn much more than the league’s minimum salary. In fact, after the thirty NBA teams have all made their first round and second round selections, any other player selected is considered fortunate to have been drafted. And except for those players selected early in the first round, most draftees either do not make their teams or they do not last for more than a season or two in the NBA.

The root of the problem is the number of jobs available in the NBA and how much, if any, consideration is given to this number by those who aspire to play in the NBA. There are thirty teams with a maximum of fifteen players on each team – twelve active players and up to three inactive players. At an average of fourteen players per team, there are about 420 players in the NBA at any given time. On the other hand, there are 435 members in the United States House of Representatives. Therefore, in terms of available job slots, it is just as easy to become a U.S. Representative as it is to make it to the NBA. Adding the one hundred U.S. Senators to the equation means that there are twenty-five percent more members of the U.S. Congress than players in the NBA.

Finally, it should be noted that making it to the NBA is only half the battle. Staying in the NBA can be even more difficult. With the exception of the best three to six players on a team, players live with the very real possibility that they may not be re-signed when their contracts end. There is always the next annual draft of college players and the influx of rookies desperate to make their marks. And, of course, management is always looking to reduce costs by replacing the players they have with players who are just as good but with lower salary demands. Although the media induces fans to focus most of their attention on the superstars who play for ten or even fifteen years, this is not the norm. As a result of injuries, as a result of being replaced by equally talented but younger and lower salaried players, and as a result of just “losing a step,” the average length of a NBA career is less than four years.

“Doctor J” – Versus – “Julius Irving, M.D.”
Although making it to the NBA is largely a physical pursuit and becoming a physician is largely an intellectual pursuit, these two achievements have much in common. They both require a tremendous amount of dedication and an enormous amount of work. Anyone aspiring to play in the NBA must be prepared to spend two to four hours per day, everyday, practicing, conditioning, and learning all there is to know about basketball. Anyone aspiring to be a doctor must be prepared to spend two to four hours per day, everyday, reading, studying, and learning all there is to know about medicine. It is a safe bet that many of the players who make it to the NBA, and many of those who do not, could have become physicians if they had been as dedicated and worked as hard to become physicians as they did to make it to the NBA.

Just as a goal of becoming a doctor and a goal of playing in the NBA have some things in common, there are also major differences. Perhaps the most significant difference is what happens to the comparatively small percentage of individuals who aspire to but do not become doctors versus the incredibly high percentage of individuals who aspire to but do not make it to the NBA.

Individuals who do not achieve their ultimate goal of becoming physicians still almost always graduate from college with a quality education. And because they had planned to attend medical school, the idea of earning an advanced degree is already firmly established in their minds. Nor is it the end of the world for individuals who attend medical school but do not graduate or they graduate but do not become physicians. They are able to find rewarding, challenging, well-paying jobs in the field of medicine or elsewhere.

Individuals who do not achieve their ultimate goal of playing in the NBA do not fare nearly as well. Many of them were pushed through the educational system because of their athletic abilities and they are not prepared for the intellectual requirements of college. Some lose their athletic scholarships, flunk out, or simply leave college long before they graduate. Others, who do graduate, having focused on their athletic careers, are not prepared to meet the challenges they must face when basketball is no longer their claim to fame. One is not likely to come across a forty year-old black man with a mediocre job – sitting in a neighborhood barbershop, telling stories of how excellent his grades were in college – explaining that if it were not for a knee injury he would have become a physician or an attorney.

Another significant difference between aspiring to play in the NBA and aspiring to become a physician is that once an individual has successfully completed medical school, he or she is eligible to become a doctor. There is no fixed limit on the number of individuals who can become doctors. This is one of the reasons why there are approximately 900,000 physicians in America. With only four hundred or so jobs in the NBA, one can be the five hundredth best basketball player in America and not even be close to making it to the NBA.

Of course, the one difference that most people tend to focus on involves the salaries that are earned by NBA players versus the salaries earned by doctors. However, they also tend to overlook or downplay the most obvious problem with the comparison. The size of a salary is not a critical factor if there is virtually no chance of getting the job. And while it may be difficult to become a doctor, by comparison, the odds of making it to the NBA are astronomical. With the population of the United States approaching 400 million, only about one American in a million can possibly play in the NBA. With the number of physicians approaching one million, almost one out of every four hundred Americans is a physician.

There is another consideration that is often overlooked when comparing the salaries of doctors, lawyers, and other degreed professionals to the salaries of professional athletes. While it is true that the average annual salary of a NBA player may be significantly higher than the average annual salary of a physician, it must be remembered that average salary in the NBA is heavily skewed by the multi-million dollar contracts of a handful of superstars. It must also be remembered that the average length of a NBA career is less than four years. In contrast, most doctors practice medicine for twenty, thirty, or forty years. It is this lifetime earning potential that makes the high cost of medical school a worthwhile investment for anyone’s future.

Jim Crow Is Dead – But Not Yet Buried
In any discussion of physical endeavors versus intellectual pursuits, it should be acknowledged that the lines between the two are not always so clearly drawn. Becoming a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or an accountant is physically demanding. And becoming a football player, a hip-hop artist, or a ballet dancer requires knowledge and intellect on many levels. This is why most successful athletes and entertainers usually possess a balanced combination of physical ability and intellect.

This was certainly the case for the black entertainers and athletes who were successful during the Jim Crow era. They are to be greatly admired for having the talent and the courage to be successful at a time when racist Americans cringed at the success of any black American. And they certainly are to be honored for what they accomplished. Their achievements, as much as any other factor, helped to bring an end to the Jim Crow era.

However, in spite of the great contributions that black Americans have made and will continue to make in the sports and entertainment fields, successful athletes and entertainers can not save black America. The most obvious reason is that there simply are not enough available jobs in these fields to make a significant impact on black America’s economy.

Secondly, in spite of perceptions that are the results of media focus on a few high-profile black athletes and a few superstar black entertainers, the percentage of black professional athletes and entertainers is more or less equal to the percentage of black Americans in the general population. That is, the rest of America is just as competitive and just as successful in the sports and entertainment fields as black Americans. In any case, another ten Muhammad Ali’s can not save black America. Another one hundred Halle Berry’s can not save black America. Nor can another one thousand Michael Jordan’s save black America.

Who can save black America? Hundreds of thousands more black CEO’s and CFO’s can save black America. Hundreds of thousands more black attorneys and judges can save black America. Hundred of thousands more black doctors, dentists, and other medical professionals can save black America. Hundreds of thousands more black engineers and architects can save black America. Hundreds of thousands more black accountants and information technology professionals can save black America. And, in fact, it would be easier to produce these hundreds of thousands of black professionals than it would be for black America to produce another one thousand superstar athletes.

The Situation (The Problem And The Solution)
Black Americans are now, as they have always been, the least educated and the least knowledgeable segment of the American population. This would be expected to be the case during the Slavery era from 1619 until 1865. It is also understandable that this would be the case during the Jim Crow era from 1866 until 1968. And it would be acceptable if measurable progress had been made to reduce the disparity in education and knowledge during the first four decades of the Equal Opportunity era that began in 1969. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

It can be argued that the disparity in the level of education and knowledge between black Americans and the rest of America has actually increased in the more than fifty years since the landmark Brown Supreme Court decision of 1954. A better case can be made that the degree of the disparity has essentially not changed. But there are no valid data, statistics, or measurements to make the case that the disparity has been significantly reduced.

Any number of measurements can be used to make the case that little or no progress has been made in eliminating the disparity in the educational levels of black Americans and other Americans. For example, based on percentages of population, white Americans still earn almost twice as many college degrees as black American. And using college graduation rates is appropriate because the mean income of a person who earns a Bachelor’s degree is almost twice the mean income of a high school graduate. And this percentage increase in income level is one of the highest that results from an increased educational level. Also, in the technology based global economy of the twenty-first century, a Bachelor’s degree will become the minimum requirement for a reasonable chance of having a meaningful, sustainable, economically rewarding career.

The Problem
Black Americans will never attain economic parity in America until black Americans reach educational parity in America. And black Americans will never reach social equality in America until black Americans reach educational parity in America. Knowledge is power. And as long as black Americans remain the least educated and least knowledgeable people in America, they will remain the people with the least amount of power in America.

Understanding The Problem
Black Americans have apathetic and negative attitudes towards formal education. These attitudes are a product of black America’s history. During 246 years of Slavery, twelve successive generations of black Americans were socially engineered to believe that formal education and intellectual pursuit were the sole purview of white Americans. Black America came to disrespect and even disdain formal education and the seeking of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. And black Americans also came to fear the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge, initially at the hands of racist white Americans, but eventually also from other black Americans.

It was, of course, necessary to keep black Americans as uneducated and as ignorant as possible in order to perpetuate Slavery. However, it was also important to ensure that black Americans were the best slaves they could be. This was accomplished in part by socially engineering black Americans to believe that their only value encompassed their physical capabilities. Indeed, black Americans were engineered to believe that, as sub-par human beings, they were put on earth by the all-knowing Creator to use their bodies and not their brains.

The social engineering of black Americans to be a physical people and not an intellectual people did not end with Slavery. The 103-year Jim Crow era, which spanned another five generations, did little to change long held beliefs regarding the physical versus the intellectual capabilities of black Americans. In fact, it can be argued that the Jim Crow era reinforced these beliefs in the minds of many white Americans and the subconscious of many black Americans. That is, even after Slavery ended, black Americans continued to be a physical rather than an intellectual people.

Of course, the explanation for this was that simply passing a law that abolished Slavery could not reverse two and a half centuries of social engineering. And laws or no laws, white, racist Americans were bound and determined to maintain the status quo, using every available weapon, including intimidation and lynching. And while it may be true that black Americans had more options when Slavery ended, it is also true that these options were of little value since black Americans did not have the resources to take advantage of them. In the end, black Americans did what they could and what they had to do just to survive in the Jim Crow era.

Just as the social engineering of black America did not end with Slavery, it also did not end with the Jim Crow era. And it can be argued that black Americans are still being programmed to regard themselves as primarily physical rather than intellectual beings. Certainly, a good case can be made that little or nothing is being done to reverse or to even understand the effects of social engineering on black America over the past four centuries. In the mean time, black Americans have continued to pass down to their descendants, generation after generation after generation, a legacy of disrespect, disdain, and even fear of formal education. And each of those generations has been afflicted with a mindset of apathy and negativity in regard to formal education and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Solution
Black America must radically alter its prevailing mindset of apathy and negativity towards formal education and the seeking of knowledge. Black America must create a new, positive mindset – a mindset that ranges from enthusiasm to fanaticism in regard to formal education and the pursuit of knowledge.

This task will not be easily accomplished because, unfortunately, even in the twenty-first century, a large segment of black America still views educated black Americans as “uppity,” Uncle Toms, or “trying to be white.” An expression that some black youths once used to describe their peers who cared about education and knowledge was that, “you ain’t keeping it real.”

This is the reason why most black youths do not aspire to be the next John H. Johnson, the next Maya Angelou, the next Colin Powell, the next Condoleezza Rice, or even the next Barack Obama. Many black youths do not even know who these individuals are or are aware of their historic accomplishments.

Most black youths do aspire to be the next Michael Jordan, the next Halle Berry, the next Sean Combs, or the next Beyonce Knowles. They, in fact, do know who these talented individuals are and often know the details of their careers and lives.

Of course, this is not to say that black youths should not aspire to greatness in any field that they choose, including the sports and entertainment fields. However, it is to say that balance and realism must be taught to black children from birth and constantly reinforced by parents and the rest of the black community. Unlike the Jim Crow era, black Americans now have broad options and they also have the resources to take advantage of these options. The point is that there may never be another Michael Jordan. However, there is no reason why there can not be a million black physicians.

At the end of the day, singing, dancing, or playing basketball or football will not save black America. Education and knowledge is the gateway that will lead to the solutions to all the problems that afflict black America.