Enrichment Arts & Culture

Ahead of March Madness, a campaign to redefine the Black student athlete

a promotional image with three faces of young Black men with one looking down to the right (left), one looking forward at the viewer (center), and one looking up to the left (right) with the text "off court champs" overlayed on the image and the dove men+
Image courtesy of Dove Men+Care

Story at a glance

  • White men overwhelmingly see Black men as “athletic” rather than “smart,” according to a new study on stereotypes of Black men.
  • In response, Dove Men+Care is launching a campaign to highlight achievements of Black male athletes off the court.
  • The company is also partnering with advocates to push legislation against hair discrimination, which primarily targets Black men and women.

For a long time, the negative and racist stereotype of Black men as criminals was countered by another, supposedly more positive, stereotype: Black men as student athletes. From “Coach Carter” to “Blind Side,” the narrative has given birth to an entire genre of media. But is it still racist?  

When shown an image of a Black man, people are most likely to describe him as an athlete over any other profession, such as CEO or doctor, according to a new study commissioned by Dove Men+Care, which is launching a new initiative highlighting the off-court identities of young Black men and athletes. 

While these stereotypes are prevalent in sports and media, it also percolates into the self-identity of Black boys, the study found, starting as early as 3 years old and narrowing as they go from high school to college. These biases can not only be limiting in their education and careers, but also make them statistically more likely to be perceived as criminals.


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“Black men and boys are seen as inferior to White men in almost every aspect of their lives. This deep-seated bias has rooted itself in the fabric of society and permeated the very existence of Black men and boys,” the study found. 

The killings of George Floyd and other Black men at the hands of police have brought the fatal consequences of such assumptions into focus, encouraging many professional athletes to use their platforms to speak out in protest. Now, student athletes are joining the cause. 

“What do you see when you look at me? Do you see an athlete, a number, an entertainer? Look again,” asks a new campaign questioning the stereotype of the male Black student athlete. 


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Through virtual workshops or “clinics,” Off Court Champs is highlighting the personal experiences of seven former Black NCAA student athletes as a model for today’s generation. The campaign features award-winning quilter Michael Thorpe, author and poet Terrance Hayes, businessman and suit designer Justin Drummond, philosophy professor Onaje X. O. Woodbine, author and speaker Adonal Foyle, artist Desmond Mason and community activist Terry Dehere. 

Unilever, Dove’s parent company, is also launching a petition with National Urban League, Color Of Change and Western Center on Law & Poverty to advocate for the CROWN Act, or “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” a legal protection against race-based hair discrimination. They’re also offering their own pledge, asking signees to fight discrimination by educating themselves, challenging discrimination and advocating for “legislative change.” The company has a history with discriminatory beauty practices and continues to sell a popular skin whitening product, despite changing the name last year. 

While cities, counties and states are considering laws against hair discrimination, which targets Black men and women, the CROWN Act never made it out of the U.S. Senate in the last Congressional session. Still, advocates are pushing ahead and have successfully pushed legislation into law in eight states and over a dozen cities and counties across the country. 


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