Why I’m Rooting for Everybody Black in the NCAA Basketball Tournament

The Cincinnati Bearcats celebrate their championship victory over the Houston Cougars in the 2018 AAC Basketball Championship on March 11, 2018, in Orlando, Fla.
The Cincinnati Bearcats celebrate their championship victory over the Houston Cougars in the 2018 AAC Basketball Championship on March 11, 2018, in Orlando, Fla.
Photo: Mark Brown (Getty Images)

HBO’s Insecure star Issa Rae famously declared during a red-carpet interview at the Primetime Emmy Awards in September that she was “rooting for everybody black.” Some deemed the statement racist. Many misinterpreted Rae’s advocacy as opposition to all nominees who weren’t black.


That’s not what I heard. Anyone familiar with the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood (pdf) should understand that Rae, a black woman, was cheering on people who are barely represented either in front of or behind the camera. It is clear to me that she wanted equity and fairness for people who look like her. This feeling resonates with me.

I’m a huge college football and basketball fan. My latest book is on scandals in intercollegiate sports; I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses on athletics over the past two decades, and I’m on the University of Southern California’s faculty oversight committee for athletic academic affairs.

The only thing I enjoy more than teaching, researching and writing about sports is watching college student-athletes compete. An embarrassing sum of my time these next three weeks will be spent watching teams progress through my March Madness bracket. Since my beloved alma mater Indiana University won’t be in this year’s tournament, a friend recently asked for whom was I rooting. Like Issa Rae’s, my response was, “Everybody black.”

This week, the research center I direct at USC released a new report on black male student-athletes and racial inequities in NCAA Division I college sports (pdf). In it, I present numerous statistics that make clear that black players need more people rooting for them—and I’m not just talking about the mostly white fans who pack arenas and sports bars across the country to cheer them on during these three weeks of March Madness. They need people who are more deeply invested in their success beyond the basketball courts on which they make millions of dollars for their institutions, athletic conferences and the NCAA.

The tournament, which starts today, Tuesday, will generate more than $821 million, according to the NCAA’s website. Most of the money-makers are the students for whom I’m rooting.

In the report, I note that black men are only 2.4 percent of undergraduates across the five major conferences, yet they make up 56 percent of basketball teams. An even higher percentage of them will labor just about the full duration of games during the NCAA tournament.


I watched several conference games over this past weekend. I found striking that in most matchups, everyone on the floor except the referees was black. And these black men played almost the entire time. Teammates from other racial groups were cheering from courtside benches, and of course, most of their coaches were white.

In the report, I provide data on compensation and the racial demographics of coaches, athletics directors and conference-level executives. I’m rooting for black male players to get more head coaches who look like them. In my view, it’s absurd that the overwhelming majority of revenue-generating laborers are black male students, yet only 12 percent of head football and men’s basketball coaches in the major conferences are black.


On average, head basketball coaches earn $2.7 million, athletics directors make more than $700,000, and commissioners of the five top sports conferences earn $2.5 million annually. Given how many talented young black men there are on these teams, I’m rooting for more black men to get multimillion-dollar head-coaching jobs and handsomely compensated leadership opportunities in big-time college sports.

Above all, I’m rooting for everybody black to graduate. My report, which is based mostly on NCAA data, shows that graduation rates for black male student-athletes have declined at 40 percent of universities in the five major sports conferences over the past two years.


Black male athletes graduate at rates 14 percentage points lower than those of their teammates. Undergraduates in the general student body, as well as black men who are not on sports teams at the universities in my study, also graduate at higher rates than black athletes do.

The NBA will draft less than 2 percent of college basketball players. I’m rooting for the remaining 98 percent, which is just about everybody, who will need to be prepared for postcollege options beyond professional sports.


During March Madness and beyond, I’ll continually root for everybody black and advocate for the eradication of racial inequities that systematically disadvantage them.

Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D., is a professor and executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California. His 12 books include Scandals in College Sports. He was named to The Root 100’s list of influential African Americans for 2016. Follow Harper on Twitter.





It’s really hard to take racism out of a plantation system. I almost hate to say this but the only way out of this is to follow Levar Ball’s example. Ech....I need a shower now.