Recently, I started thinking of pragmatic ways to bridge the gaps of opportunity for black males. Seeing that this is a free-market-based economy, with everything having value, I looked at it in terms of what our value really is to this country. That led me to wondering how much is invested in us to begin with.
It's a question I never got an answer to, but I learned a lot while trying to answer it, and when I looked at it from an investment standpoint, things began to look different to me.
For example, a stockbroker who lives in Montclair, N.J., would see quite a different quality of life than a bus driver in Baltimore. They might work equally hard at their jobs, but because so much was invested in the stockbroker when he was 13, he gets to live a better life at 45. However the bus driver didn't get that same investment as a kid and now his options are fewer. Not that there's anything wrong with being a bus driver, but the likelihood is that he did not have as many options as the stockbroker leading up to this point.
So I began to wonder what would happen if an actual financial value was invested in black males. Would we see better returns in our own lives? Would our unemployment rate drop? Would our dropout rates decrease and our graduation rates rise? Would fewer black men be likely to spend time incarcerated in their lifetimes than the 1 in 3 chance they have now?
I gave tech entrepreneur Mike Green a call to talk about the subject. He's co-founder of ScaleUp America, the America 21 Project, and a founder of Saving America's Black Boys – three campaigns that focus on changing the environment of opportunity for black males. While we were talking, I put the notion of investing in black boys to him and he suggested that it's something already done en masse.
"In the realm of sports, over the past 40 or 50 years, we've gone from breaking the racial barrier to being overrepresented in the NBA and NFL," he explained.
"When you take universities with multimillion dollar athletic budgets, they are seeding money into broken communities that already exist. They didn't create the value, it was already there. They invest in scaling it up so that it benefits the university."
I have to admit, Green caught me off guard because I had never thought of it that way. To me, the high school-college-pro sports pipeline always represented a way out of poverty for many talented athletes.
But Green's point was that for the boatloads of money that are actually invested in black boys to become athletes, an opportunity is being missed to invest in black boys to compete in many other arenas.
"When we look at the landscape of Black America and ask where does the investment potential exist, we start to see gold nuggets all over the place," Green told me, citing the examples of John Thompson, Microsoft's board chair and Emmett Carson, who runs the Silicon Valley Foundation with a budget of $500 billion. The goal, he said, should be to find more ways to cultivate men like these. It is done consistently in sports.
"Every time they build a stadium, every time they put money in to real estate or build a school because the brand of the college has risen because of people buying merchandise, all of that is because of the value they have extracted out of black boys.
"Disney owns ESPN, which has exploded primarily covering the successes and failures of guess who? Black boys, most of whom come from broken communities. We are talking billions of dollars all around the pipelines of communities where no investment is going into but they are channeling that competitiveness and intelligence into the sports arena."
This season, NBA players got paid a combined $2 billion. But the 30 teams are collectively worth $19 billion and make roughly $4.6 billion in revenue. To create that kind of wealth, much less is spent. For example, in 2010 the University of Kentucky, a consistent basketball powerhouse spent a paltry $434,000 to recruit players, and they spent the most in the country.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., spent the most in the country on their students. They coughed up $18,667 in the 2010 fiscal year.
So to me, Green is right. The sports pipeline spends a little on the front end to create magnificent wealth on the back end. Just think of how our society would profit if that kind of investment was made in black boys who were not headed for the NBA, but could possibly be headed to a major university or to the top of the corporate chain, or even to steward their own corporations and institutions.
Gold nuggets indeed. We just have to figure out a way to mine them the way pro sports has.