The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College admissions scandal parents used black male athletes to make space for their kids

(Matt Slocum/AP)

Before Don McPherson walked into his first class as a freshman at Syracuse in 1984, he already was known to most every student on campus. His name and face preceded him, splashed on the front pages of the city’s and campus’s newspapers. Local broadcasters discussed his prospects on television and radio. He was the new hope for the Orange, its new quarterback.

Yet, McPherson, who went on to a Hall of Fame career at Syracuse, said he felt like a suspect, just as he had in high school, where he was one of a few black kids on a similar predominantly white campus where he arrived from a mostly black inner-city New York neighborhood.

“I didn’t want to be the black kid . . . just as a football player,” McPherson said to me last week. “I always wanted to present that I wasn’t just that.”

So, he adopted a disguise. A collared shirt. A tie, even. The New York Times tucked under his arm everywhere he went.

It was not unlike what we learned in recent weeks was the ultimate costume to hide actual unworthiness of college admission. His appearance was fashioned, after all, to look like most of his campus’s populace at the time. Or, fast-forward to 2019, to look like any of the upward of three dozen children of wealthy and well-connected mostly white families — Hollywood and Silicon Valley types, doctors and lawyers — the government alleged are in some of the most elite colleges and universities in the country only because of bribes from their parents of college admission gatekeepers.

Until the federal government stepped in last month, the black male college athlete held that distinction on college campus — academically unworthy — almost alone. We in the media wrote extensively about those high school athletes, predominantly and disproportionately black males, headed to college to play its revenue-generating sports of football and basketball despite failing standardized tests and not meeting individual college admission prerequisites. We quoted Notre Dame’s legendary football player Paul Hornung when he remarked during a tough stretch for Fighting Irish football that “We can’t stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned because we’ve got to get the black athlete.”

We rarely, however, wrote exposés about the sons and daughters of the wealthy and white whose real eligibility at the best schools we wondered about. We never allowed the collective intelligence of their class to be castigated in public.

“I was a commodity,” McPherson said. “And I knew that. Not only did I not feel like I belonged on campus, I never got treated like a student.

“I was a celebrity on the campus of an academic institution surrounded by people who didn’t see me as an intellectual,” said McPherson, who went on to work in academia at Northeastern and Adelphi universities as well as television commentating on college football. “That goes back to, who belongs? I wasn’t viewed as contributing anything to the academy other than my body as a football player.”

It was an understandable sensitivity for black male athletes then. It is borne out even more than three decades later. While they represent more than half of major college basketball rosters, such as those headed to the Final Four, and more than 60 percent of those colleges’ football rosters, black males compose less than 3 percent of the undergraduate enrollments at those institutions. In short, black athletes are on college campuses mostly to make money for the athletic corporation rather than be nurtured by the academic apparatus.

And that truth may be what makes the system constructed and funded by well-heeled white parents to hijack the college admissions system for the benefit of their undeserving kids particularly devious. For many of them used the blood and sweat of black male athletes to make space for their kids.

This was why the government nicknamed its investigation, which netted 50 adults, Operation Varsity Blues. Upward of a dozen of those indicted involved coaches or other athletic department officials who accepted money from parents to have the parents’ kids posed as athletic recruits, who get preferred admission at many colleges and universities.

And almost all of these fake athletes purportedly played a sport other than football or basketball. They supposedly sailed. Played soccer. Volleyball. Tennis. Participated in games known in the college athletic industry as expenditure sports. They are sports that cost the schools money to run without bringing in money. They are played predominantly by white athletes. And their overheads are mostly paid for by the revenue generated from football and basketball, which are mostly stocked by black male athletes.

That is an overlooked truth about college athletics. Most of it is not football and basketball, but everything else. And most everything else is played by everyone except black males who make everything else possible.

“There’s no greater form of hypocrisy in American culture than athletics in higher education,” McPherson said. “When you look at stadiums that put 100,000, 110,000 people in the seats, and the brothers on the field can’t even read, it is staggering to wrap your brain around. And I love college football, but it is hard when you hear the term non-qualifiers [for black male athletes]. That means you don’t belong on campus.”

At the very least, however, those black male athletes are providing a function for the university. They are producing financial returns to keep a part of the institution afloat. They are being used to attract applications and students and alumni.

They do have a space on campus, albeit exploitative, where they belong. And they had to be gifted and talented to occupy that space.

The kids finally found out in the admissions investigation are the real scandal. For they are the ones who have no space on the campus and are without gift or talent even to be exploited.

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.