When Malcolm Wooldridge grew big and quick, when he became a high school football star, everyone said the same thing. Classmates and teachers told him. So did people around his Florida hometown.
You've got it made, they said. You'll get a college scholarship.
The recruiters who came to watch him play only reinforced this notion. Suddenly homework and grades seemed less important as the 6-foot-2, 300-pound teenager devoted himself to taking care of business on the football field.
"My mom would sit there and talk to me about school," he recalled. "I was like, 'Yeah, right.' "
For years, African American educators have worried that young black men such as Wooldridge are especially prone to getting the wrong idea, latching on to sports as the best -- if not only -- path to college. Now, these experts say, a recent report from the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. lends credence to their suspicions.
Ten percent of black males enrolled as undergraduates at the nation's largest universities were identified as scholarship athletes. That percentage was at least four times greater than for any other ethnic group.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 19 inches; 707 words Type of Material: Correction
Black athletes -- The percentages in a graphic in Section A on Monday on black male athletes were correct, but the lines corresponding to the percentages pointed to the wrong segments in the pie charts shown. As the chart stated, the percentage of black male students enrolled in NCAA Division I schools who receive some sort of athletic scholarship is 9.95%. At UCLA, that figure is 15.68%; at USC, 15.73%.
And statistics show that young black men, having played their way onto campus, are more likely to struggle in the classroom.
Not that educators want to throw sports out with the bathwater. They still see athletics as a way to get young men into college and give them a chance to become good students.
But they also see universities recruiting blacks as athletes first. They see sports playing a disproportionate role and question the influence of parents, culture and the earliest years of schooling.
Genethia Hudley Hayes, a Los Angeles Unified School District board member, said black teens are encouraged to develop their athletic skills but are rarely challenged academically, often placed in the easiest classes possible. "We're not preparing them to be admitted or compete [in college]," she said.
Wooldridge's parents feared as much. They tried to counteract the adulation from all around, pleading with him to strike a balance between athletics and academics. But, as he recalled, "you don't listen until something bad happens."
With college football in its bowl season -- an annual gala of marching bands, brightly painted fields and nationally televised games -- the NCAA has touted its annual report as evidence of an overall rise in graduation rates among student-athletes in the nation's 324 largest (classified as Division I) schools.
The findings are gleaned from statistics colleges supply each year to the U.S. Department of Education. But a close examination reveals a less-than-encouraging story for black males.
In the 2000-01 academic year, black males numbered only 122,854 out of 3 million, about 4%, of the overall student body at Division I universities. White males, by comparison, numbered more than a million, or about 33%.
In athletics, the 10% participation for black males was significantly higher than rates for white (2.3%), Hispanic (1.5% of 81,950) and Asian (0.6% of 102,658) males. The rate for black females was 2.3%, roughly the same as the overall percentage.
The situation at the two major local universities was even more lopsided. At USC, there were 337 black males in a student population of 15,057 (2.2%). At UCLA, the number was 370 of 23,873 (1.5%). At both schools, almost 16% of black males participated in sports.
Intercollegiate athletics are an important part of college life, "so participation is terrific," said Michael Nettles, an education professor at the University of Michigan. But he considers the statistical imbalance worrisome.
Professor John H. Stanfield II, chairman of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, has another term for it: "a shame."
Stanfield believes the African American community tells girls: "Take care of yourself, get as much education as you can, become professionally independent." He said boys get a different message. "The notion that sports is the only meal ticket is what parents tell kids," he said.
That wasn't the case with Wooldridge.
His parents grew concerned when his name appeared in the newspaper and people recognized him in restaurants because of his football exploits. Even Wooldridge suspected he was receiving passing grades for minimal work. "Man, the teachers bent over backward to keep you on the field," he said.
In 1999, he graduated from Olympic Heights High in Boca Raton as a prized recruit, but his standardized test scores were not high enough to satisfy NCAA requirements. Instead of going to college, he enrolled in a military academy for what amounted to a fifth year of high school.
"Sometimes culture will send you explicit messages and subtle messages," mused his father, David, who played football at Murray State University in Kentucky. "Malcolm had some decisions to make."
A year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia got Wooldridge his qualifying scores but did little to change his attitude.