Parker: Education became my football

Football fans across the nation watched last week the much-anticipated NFL Scouting Combine as it showcased the best of the best in American athleticism.

Make no mistake that the impoverished youth were watching as well. Lured by the possibility of multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsements, many African American adolescents set their dreams on playing in the NFL.

Vernon Parker

Statistically, the odds are low that football will be a golden ticket for anyone, but if it pans out, the odds are high that the lifestyle of the NFL will come with a steep price.

Most people are beginning to understand the life-altering consequences of playing football from the voluminous research that’s demonstrated how the sport can cause irreparable brain injuries. While less educated parents or guardians may not be as aware of the health consequences of football as their wealthier counterparts, they are certainly aware of the sport’s potential financial rewards.

The demographic shift of young men who are seeking to play football is also troubling.

Alongside the increasing awareness of football’s calamitous health consequences, there has been a reduction in the number of football prospects in every single demographic group — except one. The most impoverished kids are the sole exception.

According to a recent study, total football enrollment has declined by 6.6 percent in the past 10 years, but that is not the case for low-income young men. Real Sports found that in Illinois, for example, the proportion of recruits of young men in the poorest high schools increased by 25 percent, while the overall number of players dropped by nearly 15 percent.

We must do a better job of ensuring that sports, especially football, is not the only way “out” for young African Americans. It’s time we ask ourselves how the future could look different for young men of color. The answer is simple — education.

I grew up with dreams and aspirations of playing in the NFL. That never happened. Education became my football. Navigating the intersection of sports, education and poverty was not a hypothetical exercise for me.

Having been raised by five strong women: my mother, grandmother and three aunts in an impoverished area of Long Beach, California where violence and drugs were a part of everyday life, I escaped the grim reaper of poverty and complacency through education.

It was a tough neighborhood experiencing tough times. Even though my grandmother could not read or write, she constantly instilled in me the value of education as a force for good and a tool to implement change.

I attended the high school depicted in the movie Freedom Writers and even though I did extraordinarily well, no counselor or teacher told me anything about college. After graduating from high school, I happened to one day drop by Long Beach Community College where I enrolled and attended while working full-time at a grocery store.

Eventually, I earned a degree and transferred to California State University Long Beach where I graduated with a BS in Finance with a minor emphasis in Math and Spanish.

After working for two years as a financial analyst at Rockwell International, I applied for law school at Georgetown University, where I later received a law degree.

Growing up on the rough streets of Long Beach, it took a lot of work, faith and luck to escape the conveyor belt of poverty and crime to become a Special Assistant in the White House to President George H.W. Bush and to also be unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate as an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, and it all started with my commitment to education.

Not everyone has a grandmother like mine, and if the choice is between the luxuries of NFL and the miseries of poverty, it’s no surprise that football is alluring.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sports, and sports kept me out of a lot of trouble. But we have gotten off course.

It’s time to inspire our children, all our children, about the long-lasting value of education. Let’s teach them that their innate worth is deeper than brute strength and physical skill, and that education is their way out and the only way up.

It’s time to right the ship.

My own firsthand experience proves that education is the best ticket out of the tragic cycle of poverty. Educational emphasis must come early, and it can’t just be an afterthought or tacked on to a football ride. By reforming the culture that presents football as a panacea to the problems of communities of color, we can create a better-educated public that is both healthier and more prosperous.

Editor’s Note: Vernon Parker was former mayor of Paradise Valley and Special Assistant to President H.W. Bush.

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