Quick, think of a college athlete. Chances are the person who comes to mind is a football or basketball player at a powerhouse Division I school like Louisiana State University or the University of Kentucky. Maybe the player resembles, say, Joel Embiid, who turned a chiseled, 7-foot frame into a full-ride scholarship at the University of Kansas before ascending to NBA stardom.
But the typical student athlete more often plays a less blockbuster sport—lacrosse, maybe, or tennis—and in many cases comes from a well-to-do family that has shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars over the years to nurture a budding athletic talent. And a majority of the time, they’re white.
The most visible college athletes—the ones running across bar-TV screens or in full-color photographs on newspaper sports pages—tend to be black. Indeed, college football and basketball players skew disproportionately African American. But, says Kirsten Hextrum, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Oklahoma, “the black men in these two sports are not the reality of who has access to college sports.”
By the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s own estimate, 61 percent of student athletes last year were white. At elite colleges, that number is even higher: 65 percent in the Ivy League, not including international students, and 79 percent in the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference, which includes elite liberal-arts colleges like Williams College and Amherst College. As Harvard heads to court to fend off allegations that it discriminates against Asian American applicants, the plaintiffs behind the case have released to the public reams and reams of data analyzing the school’s admissions process. They allege that one factor used in admissions, called “personal rating,” systematically disadvantages Asian American students. But tucked into the 168-page analysis of Harvard’s admissions data is a curious statistic about another nonacademic factor considered by the school: athletics.