This week, Chicago will host the National Football League Draft. The event has grown so much in popularity that it is now a three-day, made-for-TV extravaganza. And the stars of the draft are predominantly African-American, given that African-Americans occupy close to 70 percent of NFL roster spots.
While informing the viewing audience where these stars are slated to play in the upcoming NFL season, the television talking heads dispense an unworldly amount of statistical data, including such essentials as 40-yard dash times and number of bench press repetitions.
Along with all of the numbers and names, fans are given back stories on many of the young men who are drafted. Undoubtedly, this will include numerous stories of young African-American men from impoverished backgrounds — urban and rural — who may have an opportunity to secure sudden wealth for themselves and their families.
These rags-to-riches stories make for great theater, as cameras capture the joy of families at the draft, and even in some homes, thanks to live remotes. This could indeed represent the fulfillment of the American dream, if only the American communities from which these young men come from were also to improve economically.
It is no secret that poor African-American communities are hotbeds for athletic talent. However, as the NFL and its farm system, college football, generate more dollars and fandom each year, these poor communities remain poor.
The NFL, like other sports leagues, does fundraising and awareness campaigns to support worthy causes, but most people, including most African-Americans, do not regard lifting up poor black communities economically as the responsibility of pro football or any sports league.
That is why it’s long overdue for families in poor black communities to stop viewing sports as a “way out.”
The draft images that will be seen this week will no doubt make a professional sports career appear glamorous and attainable to many poor African-American families. But the reality is that, according to data provided by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, just 6.5 percent of high school football players will play in college, and only 1.6 percent of college players are drafted by the NFL.
These percentages may be slightly higher for African-American players, but still these are hardly the odds that poor communities should embrace when seeking better economic lives.
Football fans have every right to watch and enjoy the NFL draft, and perhaps many in this small pool of players (256 players selected in 2015) will be able to take care of their families. However, concern also should be given to the poor communities that many of the players come from and a real game plan needs to be designed to ensure these communities win, too.
The plan could begin by being mindful of the NFL Draft’s powerful imagery. Between telling stories about poor young athletes cashing in, why not stress the importance of education? It would provide an opportunity to talk about someone like John Urschel, who was selected by the Baltimore Ravens without much fanfare in 2014 out of Penn State. Today, Urschel’s name can be found on the Ravens’ roster, as well as on a Wikipedia list of African-American mathematicians. He made headlines this year for beginning a doctoral program in applied mathematics at MIT. Urschel says he is aware of the physical risks of football, but he plays because he loves the game, just as he loves mathematics. Equipped with a developed mind, an excellent education and career options, Urschel sees football as nothing more than a choice, not “a way out,” and that is how it should be for young men everywhere.
Millions of people love football, and the football draft. Beyond the excitement of those three days of celebrating talent, there are much bigger stakes for African-Americans and their communities.
Scott Talley is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.