During the time period the study drew its data from, UNC was in the midst of an investigation and national media scrutiny over allegations of fake classes being taken by student-athletes. Cunningham said this played into the study’s findings.
“A lot of them didn’t finish, for a variety of reasons,” Cunningham said. “One, that we had our challenges with the NCAA, with agents and amateurism. And we had some academic issues at the same time.”
Harper’s study posed that low graduation rates for Black male student-athletes across all universities are rooted in deeper problems. He cited research that found a pattern of unequal academic preparation coming into college between Black and white student-athletes, with Black students being recruited from less prestigious, poorly resourced high schools at a higher rate.
Harper also related the issue in the modern day to problems that have persisted for generations. He cited previous works stating that Black male student-athletes face unfair assumptions of being “dumb jocks” while also facing racist stereotypes of intellectual inferiority from their peers.
“This caricature and other racial stereotypes continue to plague Black male student-athletes at many predominantly white colleges and universities,” Harper wrote in the study.
Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University and former UNC track and field athlete, said these prejudiced mindsets can also affect the classroom experience for Black male student-athletes.
“It’s not as extreme as a situation of being set up for failure, but you encounter faculty biases all of the time,” Jackson said. “Assumptions of intellectual inability in the classroom just because someone is an athlete. The thought of, ‘Oh, they must have only been admitted because they play a sport and they don’t want to be here and I don’t want them here either.’ And most faculty don’t think about the realities of the student-athlete experience.”
In her time as an athlete at UNC, Jackson said her coaches insisted that the team stayed on top of their grades and had time to study. However, she said this is not always true for sports with more rigorous travel and practice requirements.
“I’ve heard some coaches say outright, ‘You better not be up late studying, you need to get your rest tonight,’” Jackson said. “So it’s not even this idea that athletes are fooling around and going out on Franklin Street or whatever. They’re just prioritizing their rest over their academics at times.”
Jackson also said her track and field teammates represented a diverse mix of races, something that can’t be said for more time-constraining sports like football and basketball. Harper’s study found that while Black males represented only 2.7 percent of the total undergraduate population at UNC, they represented 56.1 percent of players on the basketball and football teams. This unequal representation was replicated at most of the other universities in the study as well.
Michelle Brown, director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, said the University has been taking steps in recent months to increase student-athlete involvement with academics that are not reflected in the study. She mentioned working on initiatives for underrepresented students with other campus organizations.
Brown also emphasized summer bridge programs as being essential to preparing incoming student-athletes for college in the future.
“It’s about sharing and exposing students to study abroad opportunities and unique experiences and internships,” Brown said. “It’s exposing them to different people and helping them find a certain community or cohort that they might not be exposed to otherwise.”