Cassandra Dan-Fodio got a first-hand glimpse of how American culture promotes athletics over academics while visiting several universities with her son Akil, a Redan High School senior.
Akil has a 3.9 grade point average, was a Governors Honors and Georgia Merit Scholar finalist and will graduate in the top 5 percent of his class. He played three sports at Redan and was recruited to play college football, eventually signing a scholarship with Florida International University in Miami.
“We visited 11 schools and only two were interested in academics—Harvard and FIU,” Cassandra Dan-Fodio said. “I was offended as a parent.”
That made for an easy choice.
“The first person [Akil] met at FIU was the president of the university,” Cassandra Dan-Fodio said. “That made a big impression on him. He felt like he could make an impact on the players there.”
That’s just one example of how student-athletes get mixed messages regarding academics and athletics. But Cassandra and her husband Musa, both of whom have law degrees, are examples of parents who showed their son the proper balance between the two.
“I always teach him to practice this muscle first (pointing to her head),” Cassandra Dan-Fodio said.
Akil Dan-Fodio spoke recently about the challenges of balancing academics and athletics at a panel discussion at Piedmont Park sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Society. Dan-Fodio was the only amateur athlete on the panel that featured former Atlanta Brave and Atlanta Falcon Brian Jordan; former NBA all-star Dikembe Mutombo; former Detroit Lion Ryan McNeil; Atlanta Falcon fullback Ovie Mughelli; and Bryan Scott of the Buffalo Bills.
The discussion began with the question “Is there a greater focus in communities, families and schools on athletics than on academics for young Black men?”
“Sports are one of the first things you’re introduced to right out of the womb,” Akil Dan-Fodio said. “As you get older, that’s what’s on TV. That’s what you want to be. Kids talk about it all the time.”
He related a story that revealed a common perception among Black students.
“At career day, people don’t listen until an athlete or a producer comes in,” he said. “Even then, it’s ‘who do you work with?’ People don’t relate to other people with professional careers.”
Both Akil and his mother agree that how the media portrays athletics is one reason why perception may be skewed in school systems such as DeKalb, where 70 percent of the students are Black.
“There are no rewards for academics,” Akil Dan-Fodio said. “If you get an athletic scholarship, on signing day they have a ceremony and all the media shows up. If you get an academic scholarship, nobody knows about it except the people you tell. Every kid wants encouragement for whatever they do. But you get it more with sports than with academics.”
In DeKalb County, the school system releases to the media a list of football players who sign scholarships on National Signing Day in February. But the same thing is not done for academic scholars.
“The media covers mostly athletics,” Cassanrda Dan-Fodio said. “The only national media coverage of academics is the National Spelling Bee.”
It also is easier for students to earn athletic scholarships than academic scholarships, Akil said. He pointed out that a friend who has a 3.9 GPA is still “looking for money” to go to college while “students with 2.4 or 2.5 averages” receive athletic scholarships. In DeKalb, 109 student-athletes in the class of 2011 signed football scholarships this year.
“You don’t even have to be that good [at sports], somebody will pick you up,” Akil Dan-Fodio said. “Maybe 10 or 20 kids get academic scholarships but a lot more get athletic scholarships.”
Dan-Fodio said he still would like the opportunity to play professional sports, but recognizes that academics is the path that will take him there.
“My parents have always stressed academics since I was young,” said Dan-Fodio, who plans to study business management at FIU. “You have to make academics be the cool thing, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my friends at school. The standard was to get an athletic scholarship, but now they’re going for academics.”