Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

The Color of Athletics at James Madison University, and the Complicated Politics of Affirmative Action in America

June 13th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

This post was inspired by an article in the Daily News Record, based in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The article begins with an anecdote from a Black male student on the James Madison University football team. The student, Marvin Brown, recalls a curious observation that he made during his freshman year at the school: “When I first got here, it seemed like every African American student was an athlete.”

Brown’s perception was both correct and incorrect; most Black students on the JMU campus are not athletes, but a disproportionate number of them are. In this passage the Black male demographic at James Madison U is described by Daily News Record reporter, Mike Barber:

[...] a study this year indicated that an uncommonly high percentage of JMU’s black male student are indeed athletes – more than a third, in fact.

The January 2008 report by Inside Higher Ed, using data collected from the NCAA’s annual survey of graduation rates, showed that just 204 of Madison’s 5,780 male students were black in the 2005-2006 school year. Of those, 34 percent – or 70 students – were athletes. And of those, the study reported, 58 were football players.

By contrast, 14 percent of the University of Virginia’s black male students and 12 percent of Virginia Tech’s were athletes.*

*To read the rest of this article from the Harrisonburg Daily News Record, click THIS LINK.

All of this points to a peculiar value system among colleges and universities, especially in states (like Virginia) in which race-based affirmative action has come under fire. Colleges vary on the degree to which they will defend their race-based affirmative action programs; but colleges with major (and often not-so-major) athletic programs remain staunch their support for athletics-based affirmative action.

I admire the general idea of athletics-based affirmative action, that if a young man or woman has unusal talent in particular sport, that a school is willing to give him or her a chance to prove himself/herself academically, even if that student’s grades and test scores fall below the minimum acceptable requirements for admission. I would, however, like to see that willingness to take a chance applied in the consideration of a wider range of students, and with the same sense of necessity and commitment that it is in the case of student-athletes.

Race-based admission aside, if colleges brought the same attitudes and priorities and the same willingness to take a chance on a student with somewhat less traditional academic qualifications to those who showed exceptional talent in instrumental and vocal music, drama, dance, poetry and fiction writing, and/or the visual art they would, simply by virtue of the ethnic diversity of those students who excel in these areas, draw a more diverse student body.

Treating applicants with exceptional talent in the arts the same way that colleges and universities treat students with exceptional talent in athletics would result in greater diversity on college campuses not because certain ethnic groups are more talented in the arts that white students are, but because — as in the case of sports — a student’s development in these areas does not depend as heavily on the overall quality of a school than does his/her academic success; nor does advanced achievement in the arts depend as heavily upon the academic background of a young man or woman’s parents.

Many colleges do indeed take into consideration a student’s achievements in music, drama, dance, visual arts, and creative writing; but these “extra-curricular activities” do not pull same weight in admissions processes as do students’ achievements on the athletic field. Correspondingly, professors in the visual, dramatic, and literary arts are rarely accorded the same role in shaping an incoming class that athletic coaches are given.

Colleges practice affirmative action based on a variety of characteristics, including the alumni status of one’s parents, athletic talent, geographic region, gender, race/ethnicity, and the potential of a student’s family to donate heavily to the institution. In the end, all of the various forms of affirmative action practiced by colleges and universities benefit these institutions, adding breadth and depth to the student body in ways that transform and enhance the academic environment.

In light of the increasing attacks on and rollbacks of race-based affirmative action, many of affirmative action’s supporters have called on a similar rollback of admissions “preferences” based on other characteristics, especially those that benefit the most privileged students. Having considered in greater depth the incredibly broad range of qualities for which colleges grant applicants what many would call “preferences” in the admissions process, I have concluded that the elimination of any forms of affirmative action compromises the mission of U.S. higher education.

Colleges must hold firm in their defense of their enrollment policies and practices, not only speaking out against ballot measures and other atttempts to govern their admissions officers from the outside, but also framing their race-based affirmative action practices within the context of the full range of qualities and characteristics for which they grant “preferences” in admissions, most of which benefit the very white students whose access to education affirmative action has been accused of compromising.

Posted by Ajuan Mance


Posted in Affirmative Action, Black athletes, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education, James Madison University, Uncategorized

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