From The Undefeated:
An Undefeated analysis shows that first-generation college students are starting to disappear from NCAA sports
BY TOM FARREY
… That players like Iverson and Waters – the first members of their families to go to college – are increasingly rare in college sports, even in the big-money, high-stakes sports of basketball and football. Indeed, most athletic scholarships are going to middle-class kids with college-educated parents, not to kids from poor families who need a scholarship to get anywhere close to a university campus.
Simply put, NCAA sports have been gentrified.
THE DISAPPEARING ‘FIRST GEN’
… But here’s the stark, myth-busting truth: Fewer than 1 in 5 students playing Division 1 hoops, and 1 in 7 in all Division 1 sports, come from families in which neither parent went to college. And their numbers are declining.
Educators call such students “first gens,” …
In 2010, the NCAA began asking college athletes whether they are first gens as part of its little-known GOALS Study, which captures the background and experience of those playing sports at all three levels of competition. In 2015, it did another survey of 21,000 athletes. …
Surprisingly, the data revealed that most Division 1 sports experienced steep drops in first gen students. The falloff was dramatic even in the sports most associated with tales of uplift: In men’s basketball, the sport that used to have the highest percentage of first gens, the number plummeted by a third in just five years. Women’s basketball experienced a similar drop. Football fell by more than 10 percent. …
In men’s basketball, 28% of Div I player’s were first generation college students in 2010 versus only 19% in 2015.
Indeed, the data suggests that athletes awarded scholarships in big-time college sports are more likely to come from advantaged backgrounds than the wider student body. …
Indeed, the data suggests that athletes awarded scholarships in big-time college sports are more likely to come from advantaged backgrounds than the wider student body.
… There were about 400 fewer first gens in Division 1 men’s hoops in 2015 than in 2010, and about 300 fewer in women’s hoops. That’s the equivalent of 50 teams, enough to fill much of each NCAA tournament bracket. Across all Division 1 sports, the first gen population is down by nearly 2,000 people. …
Coppin State University represents a beacon of hope amid the rundown rowhomes of West Baltimore, where the riots erupted in response to the death of Freddie Gray. …
Coppin State is a public Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
But Grant acknowledges that no more than one-quarter of his players are first gens.
“That’s because we’re picking kids from families with collegiate backgrounds,” he said. “We are more careful now about who we take. Our jobs are on the line. It’s all about winning and losing – and APR. More about the APR.”
That would be the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, a policy that some believe limits opportunities for educationally disadvantaged athletes. Since 2005, the NCAA has held institutions accountable for the academic progress of athletes by measuring the eligibility and retention of each athlete. Recruit one player who lacks ability or interest in classroom matters? That can hurt a program. But recruit a bunch, and draconian penalties await. Teams have been banned from the NCAA tournament for low scores, most notably the UConn men in 2013, two years after they won a national championship.
As a result, Grant said, he only recruits players with 2.5 GPAs or higher….
Just as wealth builds wealth, advantage builds advantage. Repeating sixth grade at the Greens Farms Academy while playing up with the high school team each of those years means that [Tremont] Waters is now in his eighth year of high school ball. You read that right: eight years of high school hoops. He’s finishing out at Notre Dame High School, back home in New Haven, where he can spend more time with his parents before heading to college.
So, this super-agile black kid from Baltimore started playing on his prep school’s high school basketball team as a sixth grader, but then he repeated sixth grade. So he played 7 seasons for the high school team: sixth, sixth, seventh, eighth, nineth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and new he’s going to another prep school for another twelveth grade. That’s how you get to eight years of playing high school basketball.
If he had landed at Georgetown like he originally planned, Waters would have joined a Hoya roster wholly unlike those that created a national profile for the program in the 1980s and ’90s. Long gone are the Hoya Destroyas, the hard-edged band of working-class kids that provided John Thompson Jr. with his first and only NCAA championship. Exemplifying the ethos of that team was Michael Graham, an elbow-throwing forward who grew up poor and hungry in Southeast Washington, D.C. He told me the only reason he went to school was to eat, and that he robbed people for dinner money.
I remember people at the office a third of a century ago talking about Graham’s dunk in a the 1984 NCAA final game.
He was scary. I remember people talking about him as the Future of College Basketball.
But then he got suspended by Georgetown, never made it to the NBA, and played a lot of minor league basketball in America and Europe.
“I never owned a pair of real shoes,” he said. “I wore cloth bedroom slippers, even in the snow.” He took up basketball in eighth grade mainly because, at 6-foot-7, he was the tallest kid in the school.
And then at age 50, doing shift work in Norman, OK, Graham happened to buy a lottery ticket that turned out to be worth a million dollars.
Iverson came along a decade later. He skipped nearly a third of his school days one year, got locked up for an overblown incident in a bowling alley, earned only a high school equivalency degree – and still got into Georgetown, enrolling after classes started, just in time for the ’94 season.
In his 2016 induction speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he said, tearfully, “I want to thank Coach Thompson … for saving my life, for giving me the opportunity.”
Today’s Georgetown roster, by contrast, is dominated by recruits from private schools. From a review of their online biographies, most have a college-educated parent who went on to be a professional – a couple of them even pro athletes. Alonzo Mourning’s son, Trey, suits up for Georgetown, as does Gheorghe Muresan’s son, George.
Since becoming Georgetown coach in 2004, Big John Thompson’s son, John Thompson III, has recruited other children of the jockocracy – not just Mourning and Muresan but the sons of Doc Rivers (Jeremiah), Reggie Williams (Riyan), and Patrick Ewing (Patrick Jr.), among others. In September, he offered a scholarship to Shaquille O’Neal’s kid, Shareef, a top 20 prospect in the class of 2018.
Still, the backgrounds of the players being pursued concern Graham, who argues the Hoyas would be better with more kids who grew up with less. While the Golden State Warriors have done just fine with the sons of NBA pros (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson), that’s not been the case at Georgetown. For the second straight year, the Hoyas had a losing record and missed the NCAA tournament.
“Don’t recruit the sons of NBA millionaires,” Graham said, chortling. “Why should Alonzo’s kid be there? Give the scholarship to a kid who wants it more.” …
Across Division 1 sports, first gens, regardless of race, are now less common than they are in DIII, an extraordinary development because in DIII there are no athletic scholarships – no aid to help pay for college. And while race often matters in shaping access to elite institutions in American life, the data suggests it’s less of a factor in NCAA sports than that of socioeconomic status. For instance, across all divisions, only 3 in 10 black athletes come from homes in which neither parent attended college.
Lots more interesting stuff in Farrey’s article …
So we go through cycles of Nature and Nurture in basketball. Desegregation a half century ago boosted Nature by opening up a lot of poor black Southern talent. But over time, there are diminishing marginal returns, so now there is increased emphasis on Nurture, such as playing eight years of high school basketball, which in turn has selection effects, like can you spend 8 years at expensive prep schools without getting kicked out?