Being a collegiate athlete comes with many off-court perks, both for star players and their walk-on counterparts who don’t get much playing time. But a new report from The Undefeated explores the inequity that governs how those unrecruited spots are filled.
At the top level of men’s college basketball, where teams harbor national championship hopes and NBA talent, most of the competitors are African American. But one group of players remains predominantly White:
The walk-ons—players who don’t receive athletic scholarships, pay their own tuition, room and board and do the dirty work in practice, all in exchange for a small role in big-time basketball.
This is not a story promoting the false idea of the “White scrub” or the mythical superiority of the Black athlete. But the optics beg the question: When we look at the end of the benches during this year’s NCAA tournament, why will most of the faces there be White?
After discussing the issue with players, coaches and observers, I believe some of the same economic, social and cultural forces that make basketball a predominantly Black sport affect the walk-on population, but in reverse. These factors—a lack of wealth in the Black community, fewer connections to powerful institutions and basketball’s grip on the culture and psyche of so many young black men—push many African Americans away from a valuable opportunity.
After examining the rosters of each of the 25 teams that The Associated Press/ESPN determined led the NCAA regular season, Washington found that only nine of the 59 former and current walk-on players during this year’s finals competition are Black; 49 are White and one is Chinese American. This contrasts with the overall demographics of Division I men’s basketball, which the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database lists as 56.1 percent Black and 25.1 percent White during the 2016-2017 season (the most recent season with available statistics):
Walk-on players follow the same rigorous schedule of practices and games as the starters, but as the article notes, White students—whose families are more likely to be able to pay tuition costs—can fulfill team obligations more easily than Black ones.
“It’s money,” said Jamion Christian, the head coach of Mount St. Mary’s University. “It’s financial. It dictates a lot of things. Many students have to work jobs, but walk-ons can’t work a job because [they] have to commit to the team.”
And the benefits last long after the students graduate. Christian said that walk-on players receive leadership opportunities that may not go to star players. “I’m looking at the bench for coaches,” he explained. “A lot of these White assistant coaches get in at that level and work their way up. I’m looking at hiring young Black guys, and they’re hard to find because financially they may not be able to do it.”
“These White players know they’re never going to play, but they don’t care, and they leverage that experience for the next 40 years of their life,” said Leonard Moore, an associate vice president and scholar at the University of Texas who founded the Black Student-Athlete Summit. “They know how to leverage the walk-on experience into lucrative coaching or corporate careers.”
Read more at TheUndefeated.com.