ESPN complains about too many white players at NCAA tournament
As college basketball fans celebrate the opening weekend of March Madness, the ESPN-owned website The Undefeated has tried to pour some cold water on the excitement by tying race to roster breakdowns.
Specifically, it wants to know why so many college basketball walk-ons are white.
An article by Jesse Washington implies that race plays a factor in why so many kids at the end of college basketball’s benches — the kids who generally never play — are white.
Division I schools are allowed 13 full scholarships, but utilize walk-ons — students who receive no financial aid — to round out the final two or three spots on their rosters.
Walk-ons see most of their action during practices, running the upcoming opponent’s offensive and defensive sets. They get a lot of the perks of being with the team, like the status and travel, but little, if any, playing time.
According to Washington, the teams that finished the regular season ranked in The Associated Press’ Top 25 had 59 walk-ons. Of those, 49 were white.
By comparison, 53 percent of players on Division I rosters a year ago were black.
Walk-ons aren’t on the team to pad their NBA resumes, but many use the experience and connections they make through the program as a way to further their careers after basketball, either in the business world or by becoming coaches.
Since so few college players ever make it to the NBA, Washington believes a number of black athletes are missing out on opportunities beyond a pro career by not pursuing walk-on opportunities.
“I believe some of the same economic, social and cultural forces that make basketball a predominantly black sport affect the walk-on population, but in reverse,” Washington wrote. “These factors — a lack of wealth in the black community, fewer connections to powerful institutions, and basketball’s grip on the culture and psyche of so many young black men — push many African-Americans away from a valuable opportunity.”
Obviously, a walk-on athlete has to have the financial resources available to pay for school if they’re not receiving a scholarship. And for many black families, that’s too big of a hardship to overcome.
But Washington’s article also quotes some as saying that many black players don’t want the stigma attached of being a basketball player who sits the bench.
“White boys come here and don’t mind walking on. They know how to leverage the walk-on experience into lucrative coaching or corporate careers. That’s something the brothers don’t do,” said Leonard Moore, founder of the Black Student-Athlete Summit and a professor and associate vice president at the University of Texas.
“These white players know they’re never going to play, but they don’t care,” Moore said. “They leverage that experience for the next 40 years of their life.”
So even though fewer black athletes pursue walk-on opportunities, Washington claims race does play a factor in who is selected to be a walk-on, citing an unnamed assistant coach as saying “a lot of walk-ons at high-major schools have a connection to a big-time booster, maybe a relative or something of that nature.”
“Head coaches will take care of a kid knowing the booster has their back,” the coach said.
In 2016-17, only 22 percent of Division I coaches were black. Head coaches begin their careers as assistant coaches, and most assistants begin their careers as players — including walk-ons.
Trevon Gross Jr., a walk-on with the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers, says he chose to pursue a walk-on opportunity with Virginia over the chance to play for a Division II or Division III school, in part, because his father graduated from Virginia. He knew the importance of a degree from the school.
Asked why so few blacks pursue walk-on opportunities, Gross said he believes part of the reason is the emphasis black culture puts on basketball abilities.
“I think it’s a matter of priorities for a lot of black men in society,” Gross said. “A lot of guys just want to play.”
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