York professor focuses on racial stereotypes in school athletics

York Professor Carl James is alarmed about growing indications that some Canadian high-school student athletes, coaches, parents and institutions are more concerned about sports than academics. The recent Hollywood film Coach Carter, based on a true story, had as its central theme the decision of a US high-school basketball coach to bench his undefeated team until the players improved their grades.

But James, a specialist in education equity pertaining to ethnicity, race, social class and gender, says it’s not only the “tough love” approach the coach displayed in challenging his team to pull up their academic socks that we should be noting. He says the real issue in the film lies in the assumptions about race, sports and education which generated a firestorm of criticism against the coach – attitudes which James has detected in Canadian high schools today. “I am talking about the responsibility of the schools, coaches, teachers, administrators and parents to ensure student athletes get a good education,” James points out. “Everyone should be concerned about academic performance, and not just about having a winning team.”

James has just published a new book, Race in Play: Understanding the Socio-Cultural Worlds of Student Athletes. In it, he shows how black students are often systematically stereotyped in high-school as being fine athletes, while at the same time experiencing little encouragement of their academic dreams or expectation of scholastic excellence.

He tells the story of a number of Canadian students he has met – blacks and other racial minorities as well – who report being recruited for the high-school basketball team by coaching staff with no prior knowledge of their athletic prowess, just on race- and size-based hunches. James laments the assumption that black students are expected to form the foundation of high-school sports teams, regardless of their parents’ wishes for academics to be given the highest priority.

And the stereotypes cut both ways – what of the black students who struggle with athletics? “They can feel, ‘If I don’t match up to those expectations, maybe it’s because I’m not “black” enough’,” James suggests.

While there are risks to the students in this mostly unwitting projection of racial stereotypes, the playing and study of sports can be used as tools, James believes. Those consigned to the “sports” stream in their high school for whatever reason can learn valuable lessons in physics, mathematics, kinesiology, anatomy and plain old teamwork, given the right instruction.

The next step in James’s research is to explore the world of lucrative US college athletic scholarships and their effect on the few young black Canadian athletes who have been awarded them. Unlike the situation in Canada, many elite US college basketball teams have astonishingly low graduation rates, and James is concerned that without a sound education, all but the very luckiest and most skillful student athletes will have a tough time when they are finished with school – or school is finished with them.

“A lot of kids, often with the blessing of their teachers and coaches, plan their entire future around a career in professional sports. But the odds of having any kind of career in the big leagues are about the same as those of winning a lottery,” he says.