Skip to main content

Education vs. the lure of pro basketball

By David J. Pate, Jr., Special to CNN
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Sat April 28, 2012
From left: Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb,Terrence Jones, coach John Calipari, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague.
From left: Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb,Terrence Jones, coach John Calipari, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The starting five of the champion Kentucky basketball team are going pro
  • David Pate says he understands their choice but wonders about larger message
  • He says black men, hit hard by recession, need to focus on education
  • Pate: Too many young men encouraged to perfect athletic skills, not academic ones

Editor's note: David J. Pate Jr, is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. He is a member of the Ford Foundation Scholars Network on Masculinity and the Wellbeing of African American Males. The piece was written in association with The Op-ed Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.

(CNN) -- As a father, my heart breaks.

The starting five of the University of Kentucky basketball team — the 2012 NCAA champions — announced earlier this month that they're leaving college to go pro. It happens every year in the wake of March Madness, but as an African-American father, I feel my heart crack a little.

Yes these young champions will make money, lots of it, and will have access to instant fame.

David Pate
David Pate

I understand why they made the choice, but their collective decision says something about the options in front of all young African-American men. The Great Migration that saw my elders move from the farm to the factory has shifted; these days, too many men of promise move from college to pro sports.

I've been researching the lives of black men for much of my entire career, as a social worker for 15 years in Chicago and since 1998 as a college professor and scholar in Milwaukee. I've interviewed them, written about them and filmed them, capturing their lives and hopes; I've spent most of my time with men who had little to no incomes and limited academic and employment skills. They are often frustrated, homeless, unemployed and debt-ridden.

So I know what could be ahead for young men who put all their hopes into basketball. According to William Julius Wilson, author of "More than Just Race," for the past four decades, low-skilled African-American men have experienced more difficulty getting jobs than any other racial groups.

In Milwaukee, Marc Levine of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for Economic Development published a report in 2012 that reports when it comes to black men in their prime working years (25-54) only 44.7 % were employed. The recession has hurt people of all races, but black men have been hit the hardest when it comes to jobs.

The starting five at Kentucky might think they're a world away from these statistics, but how long will they actually have a career?

According to the Collegiate Basketball News Company website, only 51 players, or 11.9% of the players on the 2011-12 NBA opening day roster have more than 10 years of NBA experience. The average length of playing time is approximately five years and the median salary is $2.33 million. That's a big salary for one year, but not if it has to last you far beyond your playing years.

When my son was a child, like many boys he dreamed of being a basketball player where he grew up. My wife and I didn't tell him otherwise; we told him he'd need to have options. But not every child hears that and not every child has that chance. Too many young black men are encouraged to perfect their "balling'' skills but not their academic skills.

I know, because I was there. As a college athlete at the University of Detroit in the late 1970s, I was a runner. But I also worked as the statistician for the basketball team, the Titans, led by the legendary Dick Vitale. The players were my peers and my friends. And some of them did quite well, playing for the Pistons in Detroit, the 76ers in Philadelphia and the Celtics in Boston.

But not everyone left a winning Titan. Some of my friends didn't make it to the big leagues and because of their emphasis on basketball, they didn't graduate with a degree, either, unlike those of us in the other sports. Some of them ended up with drug habits or homeless. Others became fathers to children they couldn't support.

So, my heart breaks when I think of these young men from Kentucky. But it's not breaking at the choice they made. The sad truth is, I understand it. If you look out on a landscape where so many black men are unemployed, rolling the dice on the pros can feel like a rational choice -- the only choice, maybe, when there are so few options, despite the terrible odds.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Pate.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT