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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT