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Dr. Leonard Moore: Black Athletes Never Asked “What’s Your Major?

Ashlie Ford

Dr. Leonard Moore has spent years examining the intersection of race and sports in America. His presentation at TLU, “The Worldwide Leader: What ESPN Teaches us About Race in The 21st Century,” shined a spotlight on the marginalization of black athletes, as well as the immense power and influence they have. Moore, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin—who teaches courses like African-American History, Black Politics, and History of The Hip-Hop Generation—criticized ESPN’s portrayal and coverage of black athletes, as well as how colleges limit their academic development. Moore's lecture is part of a campus colloquium on race "Confronting Race, History & Symbols of Exclusion: Informed Responses."

His presentation at TLU several years ago focused on the challenges black athletes face at the college level.

As he began, Moore joked that he had a few rules for his audience, including that he would not be politically correct, nor could anyone get mad at things that were said. He opened his lecture mentioning how ironic it was that his talk was happening just two days after black football players at the University of Missouri said they would not play in their next game (potentially costing the school $1 million in fines) until the university president resigned for not addressing recent incidents of racism on campus. Since the president did in fact resign, Moore said it’s an example of the influence black athletes have.

But do they realize that power? Moore then focused on how colleges promote and profit off of black athletes, yet they remain unconcerned about their intellectual growth and scholarly experiences. When a player is expected to be on campus 12 months out of the year, taking on a grueling schedule with no room for anything other than class, practice, and treatment, they are denied crucial opportunities like study abroad or internships.

It’s an intense schedule that demands early morning and afternoon practices which limits athletes’ academic choices when registering for classes. “What can you major in that doesn’t have afternoon classes?” asked Moore. He then shared how some professors will deliberately schedule classes when athletes are in practices so they don’t have to deal with athletes and they can maintain what they perceive as the “academic rigor” of the class.

Throughout his presentation, Moore actively engaged with students, faculty, and staff, balancing both the seriousness of his topic with more lighthearted anecdotes from his experiences at UT-Austin and Louisiana State University. He addressed the problem of anti-intellectualism within black culture and the urgent need to let these young people know they are more than the sport they play. For many young black men, Moore said, being a professional athlete is the only way to be successful and actually be a black man in society.

“So what happens when the cheering stops and college is over?” Moore asked the audience. His answer is to make athletes realize their potential while also offering them career guidance and preparation like the rest of the student body. He pointed out that most of these young men and women don’t think they’re even capable of doing anything other than sports. He then called on several football players in the audience and asked what their favorite play was and what it meant. He kept on, over and over, asking them to explain technical terms and football jargon, which they did. His point was that they were already complex thinkers. They are intellectuals.

Moore also emphasized how that self-doubt extends far beyond the college level, recalling a presentation he once made to the NFL Player’s Association. There are many off-season professional development programs offered to players like the NFL’s partnership with the Wharton School of Business. However, Moore said players are hesitant to take advantage of these opportunities because they’re mentally convinced the moment they set aside football for anything academic, they’ve checked out. This is something Moore called identity foreclosure, or a commitment to something without personal exploration of yourself. This often impacts psychological health and self-esteem when a player places their identity value high as an athlete and their identity low as an educated person.

While the subject is both complicated and layered, Moore said there are things everyone can do to start chipping away at the damage being done to these athletes by ESPN and collegiate sports programs.

  1. Ask them about school first instead of their sport. Make them feel like you care about them academically and don’t just see them as a modern day gladiator.
  2. Engage them intellectually. Include them in discussions about current events or academic conversations.
  3. Help them develop professionally. It can be as simple as offering career advice or helping them write a resume.
  4. Be honest with them. The cheering stops at some point and they need to know it’s critical to have a skill set to enter the job market once college is over.

While this list isn’t going to solve these issues anytime soon, Moore hopes presentations like this will lead to more positive outcomes for young black athletes.

More About Dr. Moore

Dr. Leonard N. Moore is a professor of history, African and African-American studies, and African and African diaspora studies, as well as a senior associate vice president at the University of Texas at Austin where he supervises a broad range of academic innovation programs and initiatives and directs a social entrepreneurship/urban economic development program in Beijing and CapeTown. He specializes in modern African-American history, black urban history, and intersections of race, sport, and hip-hop. He is the author of two books that focus on the black urban experience: Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina and Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power. He is the recipient of the National Urban League Whitney M. Young Award for Urban Leadership in Education and the NAACP Image Award Nominee for best non-fiction book. Moore also helps high-profile athletic programs across the country implement strategic diversity initiatives that help student-athletes excel both in the classroom and on the field.