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What March Madness Can Teach Schools About Equity (Opinion)

March Madness, the annual single-elimination tournament where the nation’s top women’s and men’s college basketball teams compete to determine the national champion, is one of my favorite times of the year. As a former Division I college women’s basketball player, I have fond memories of traveling around the country, eating endless slices of cold pizza, drinking gallons of Gatorade, and enduring the screams of die-hard fans who seemed to love the game more than any player on the court. Twenty years later, I can still feel the agonizing excitement of taking the court and the crushing disappointment of a loss.

But what I remember most about my time as a basketball player was the support I had off the court. I only went to college because I could put a ball throw a hoop. The odds of becoming a first-generation college student were against me without sports: My SAT scores were humiliatingly low; I did not take one advanced course in high school; I averaged more points per game than my GPA; and I tested into remedial freshman classes. When I did make it to college, I was unsure how to academically stay in school to live out my hoop dreams.

As a basketball player, my experience was different from that of most of my low-income peers who entered college as students, not as student-athletes in need of support. Because I was an athlete, I had dedicated tutors in all my classes and mandatory study hall hours. As a student-athlete, my books, housing, health care, and meals were paid for, and I was given an allowance for monthly expenditures once I moved off campus that included rent, toiletries, and groceries.

The school assigned me an academic adviser to help me manage my schedule and inform my professors of when I would be missing classes for games. In short, my life as a college athlete was carefully curated and controlled, down to the meals I ate. My every need was met so that I could succeed academically and remain eligible to stay on the court. I was tired a lot during basketball season from practicing, weight training, and traveling day after day. I missed classes regularly and I was always playing catch-up on my coursework, but I never felt unsupported.

As I look back from my current perspective as an educational researcher who examines inequality in education, I now understand that what I experienced in college was more than just the perks of being an athlete; it was equity. I was a poor Black child from upstate New York who needed not only help but a system built on equity to succeed on and off the court.

In Tyrone C. Howard’s new book, Equity Now: Justice, Respir, and Belonging in School, he writes that, “Equity asks the fundamental question of how can we provide more support, resources, time, attention, and advocacy for those groups that have been historically disadvantaged to create more equal schooling opportunities?” The pursuit Howard describes as equity is what most top-tier college athletics programs around the country have been doing for years for low-income athletes from all backgrounds. We do not call it equity in college sports; we call it doing everything to win.

Imagine if low-income students of color had access to these resources as students, not just as athletes. What if we modeled equity in action in K-12 classrooms after the resources provided to student-athletes in college sports? As a nation, we love sports and we have no problem abundantly redistributing resources to athletes of color—as long as they can throw a football, run someone down like a truck, or score 25 points a game.

As a nation, we do not deploy resources for little Black boys and girls who cannot run and shoot. To experience equity in education, one must not only be an athlete but a superior athlete. For equity in education, students must become a commodity to prove they’re worthy of equity.

This March, as we watch endless games of basketball together as a nation and cheer for our favorite teams, let’s remember that equity is possible if we can value not just elite collegiate athletes but all kids the way we value the lucky ones holding the ball.

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