Pushing College Students to Excel: New Partnership Values the Player as Much as the Game

Co-authored by Dianne F. Harrison

Domonique Foxworth was an excellent NFL cornerback.

He played for the Denver Broncos, the Atlanta Falcons and eventually the Baltimore Ravens, where he signed a four-year, $28-million contract in 2009.

Then Foxworth tore his ACL, marking the beginning of the end of his football-playing career. In 2012, he retired from football. For most young men like Foxworth, such an injury would have been devastating - slamming a hard stop not just to football, but to earning potential, career possibilities and even dreams.

But Foxworth had something that was ultimately better than football. He had education.

After retiring at 29, the University of Maryland graduate went on to attend Harvard Business School. That same year, he was elected president of the NFL Players Association. This spring, Foxworth -- now the chief operating officer of the National Basketball Players Association -- was invited back to the University of Maryland to give the commencement speech to the Class of 2015.

Far too often, student-athlete's physical strengths are identified early, nurtured and rewarded. But quite the opposite happens with the intellectual and cognitive side. As a result, many student-athletes feel like winners on the courts or fields, but struggle mightily in school. In a 2014 investigation, CNN found that in some of the nation's public universities, there were many students in basketball and football programs who could read only up to an eighth-grade level. Those students were winning in sports, and failing everywhere else.

But the sad truth is, some institutions at all levels are failing children and young adults - in particular those who disproportionately make up the bulk of popular college- and professional-level sports, such as basketball and football: Black and Brown males.

Research tells us that Black and Brown males score below their peers on almost every measure associated with educational achievement. From elementary school through high school - where the dropout rate is more than 50 percent for Black and Brown males in urban school districts - our society tells them they are good at few things, and school isn't often one of them.

The NUA partners with learning institutions to support the building of academic and social emotional success of all students so that students realize and reach their exceptional learning potential. And by all students, NUA means all: Black and Brown boys and girls; those from low-income environments, under-resourced communities and struggling schools; those who have picked up on the not-so-subtle cues from media imagery, criminal justice statistics and the dismal state of their very own neighborhoods that all lives don't actually matter. At least, their lives certainly don't.

Of course race and stereotype threats about academic potential play a major role. As Ta-Nehisi Coates powerfully writes in his seminal 2015 book, Between The World and Me, that "...race is the child of racism, not the father," the author powerfully suggests that racism is "...the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy [Black and Brown peoples]."

NUA's work, in support of human justice, has been successful in urban school systems nationwide because the organization puts into practice the belief that all students can and are entitled to succeed academically, regardless of cultural, economic and ethnic roots. It's not just a hashtag to NUA. The organization knows all students matter equally. NUA knows all students can achieve.

That's why, this fall, NUA is extending its reach into the world of higher education, partnering with California State University, Northridge (CSUN) to work with faculty, advisors and underperforming freshmen at the school. NCAA, through its Accelerating Academic Success Program, awarded a generous grant to CSUN to bring in NUA's results-driven approach to teaching and learning. As a result, some, but not all, of those freshmen will be student-athletes.

CSUN and other universities and colleges continue to have success in educating academically underperforming students. This partnership will build on this success by providing students in need of developmental English and math with additional tools and support needed to engender confidence, fearless expectations and high intellectual performance - skills that have real-world applications in sustaining academic success, career choices and life-long learning.

Elizabeth Adams, CSUN's associate vice president for undergraduate studies, had this to say about how our partnership will help the Black and Brown, low-income young people who NUA has been working to empower for 22 years:

"When students from less advantaged environments are placed into learning programs with their more advantaged peers, they often feel that they are continually being judged as less capable -- rather than feeling pushed to excel," Adams said. "Potential resulting fears of incompetence and lack of confidence evoke the neurobiological response to stress that can inhibit a student's comprehension and ability to think on his or her feet -- abilities critical to higher-order thinking and professional performance."

What Adams says here is what NUA has been saying all along. Black and Brown children, low-income children, student-athletes - they all want to lead promising lives. All children and youth have unique talents and gifts that need to be embraced, developed and nourished. NUA's approach to teaching and learning brings renewed belief and high expectations -- the cornerstones of hope -- into the lives of all students - even those who have felt or been seen as less capable.

Dominque Foxworth's story didn't end when his football career did, because he had education which enabled life-long learning.
Because he had education, he also had hope. And an individual who is hopeful sees a path to a better future.

Working together, CSUN and NUA want to give all students, on and off the fields, that same opportunity.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Dianne F. Harrison is president of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), one of the largest universities in the United States.