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Reshaping academic playing fields for Black athletes

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FEBRUARY 23, 2023

The 2022-23 Student-Athlete Admissions Policy by the Admissions, Enrollment, and Preparatory Education Committee of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate outlined its top guiding principle to be that UC Berkeley student-athletes are “students first, athletes second.” The policy also indicates that student-athletes entering UC Berkeley as freshman or transfers undergo a “holistic review.”

While the policy stresses a “holistic” approach, the disparities between Black and white student-athletes suggest an ongoing need for improvement in the way that academia prepares these players for success throughout and beyond college.

Starting in the classroom, Black student-athletes often encounter racialized stereotypes pertaining to sports that compound with the general discrimination faced by Black students in higher education.

UC Berkeley professor emeritus Harry Edwards suggests viewing sport as a social institution to understand the intersectionalities of Black student-athletes.

“Sport inevitably recapitulates or reproduces the character, structure and dynamics of human and institutional relationships in and between societies,” Edwards said as a featured speaker in 2022 for athletic and sociology departments at UC Berkeley.

While microaggressions may seem more evident in one-on-one interactions with Black student-athletes and their peers, Edwards highlights the pervading macro impact of systemically imbalanced playing fields for students of color. Edwards himself experienced the complexities of Black students in sports during his time as an athlete and scholar.

“It was in academia that the greatest obstacles were encountered. That was the steepest hill to climb,” Edwards said.

And climbing that hill doesn’t simply mean traveling across campus to get to a lecture or practice.

“Black students and student athletes experience negative comments and actions by some of their non-Black peers and faculty who question their place within the academy,” said Derek Van Rheenen in an email, UC Berkeley’s executive director of the Athletic Study Center and faculty director of the master’s degree program for cultural studies of sport in education. “For Black student athletes, in particular, they sense that others in the community feel that they are only here because of their sport, despite their academic aptitude and intellectual curiosity.”

Black student-athletes succeeding in school doesn’t just depend on resources and inclusivity within the classroom: Athletic stakeholders such as coaches, administrators and even loyal fans all influence how educational institutions may or may not advocate for these players.

One of the most telling impacts of institutional influence can be seen in the graduation rates of Black student-athletes at Cal.

About a decade ago, UC Berkeley held some of the lowest Black student-athlete graduation rates in the country. That data was especially low for Black student-athletes in the high-revenue and highly popular sports of football and basketball.

A task force formed specifically for academics and athletics yielded a report with more than 50 recommendations calling for increased academic resources and more intentionality with diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice efforts.

Other efforts to provide more resources and focus on equity and belonging were initiated in the launch of the Cameron Institute for Student-Athlete Development in 2020 and the establishment of an Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Justice in 2021. Both reevaluated the relationship between stakeholders and Black student-athletes within the past few years.

But Van Rheenen stresses that Black student-athletes do not constitute a monolith, and the solutions for their success shouldn’t either.

“There is no one-size-fits-all model of support for students, even purportedly those within the ‘same’ group, such as Black student-athletes,” Van Rheenen said in the email.

Mentorships, academic support and even alumni engagement all possess the capacity to strengthen efforts of valuing Black student-athletes for their entire personhood, not just for what we see on the field or court. But this doesn’t just take place on an individual level: Both Cal and collegiate sports as a whole have work to do in order to provide Black student-athletes with the assurance that their presence in academia matters.

Contact Adriana Temprano at 


FEBRUARY 23, 2023