This was a bad week for Air Force Academy Head Football Coach Fisher DeBerry. On Wednesday, DeBerry apologized for remarks he made last Saturday (after Texas Christian defeated his team), and during his weekly media lucheon on Tuesday. After the TCU game, DeBerry alluded that TCU won (in part) because it had more minority athletes with better speed. "You don't see a lot of minority guys in our program," he observed.
On Tuesday, DeBerry made matters worse, saying that the TCU won "because they had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster." DeBerry also observed that "Afro-American kids can run very well. That doesn't mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can't run, but it's very obvious to me that they run very well."
There was predictable outrage from the usual suspects, notably the Colorado Springs chapter of the Urban League, re-igniting the ages-old debate over race, and whether certain comments are, in fact, racist.
I don't know Coach DeBerry, but he has a sterling reputation within college football, and he's been a very successful coach in a tough environment for more than two decades. But the Fisher controversy invites other, unasked questions, namely why the Air Force Academy (or other service academies) can't attract more minority athletes.
Is is racism? Hardly. The armed services have provided unparalleled opportunities to minorities for more than 50 years. In fact, African-Americans are actually over-represented in the the ranks of the military. While comprising only 13% of the U.S. population, blacks represent between 15-20% of the nation's military, mostly in the enlisted ranks. However, African-Americans are less represented among the officer corps; for example, only about 8% of the Air Force officer corps is black, a level of representation roughly equal to the percentage of black cadets at the Air Force Academy.
The most significant hurdle to entering the service academies is, quite simply, academics. This year's freshman class at the Air Force Academy had an average ACT score of 29.4, significantly above the national average. And, unlike other schools, the service academies can't lower their standards for athletes, or recruit promising players from the junior college ranks. Additionally, cadets must complete rigorous military and core academic requirements, in addition to athletics. The academies don't have majors like "criminal justice" or "sports management" that are havens for athletes at other schools. Add in the academy's active duty service requirement (up to 10 years after graduation), and it's easy to see why promising athletes tend to avoid the service academies.
But there's another issue at work here, too. In some instances, African-American youths are encouraged to pursue sports, at the expense of academic achievement. A survey published in USA Today in 2004 indicated that more than 60% of African-American kids viewed professional sports as a viable career option, despite the daunting odds. Former NBA great Charles Barkley expressed concerns about that perception in his book I Might Be Wrong, But I Doubt It. If DeBerry's comments are legitimate topics for public debate, then so are the unrealistic expectations for a pro sports career that are often "sold" to black youngsters.