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Forum Gives UConn Student-Athletes Chance To Talk About Full College Experience

Marquise Vann, a senior in the fall, recently made his first visit to UConn’s African American Cultural Center.

Vann is a UConn football player and a very good one. He’s also African American.

He doesn’t get out much and the same could be said for the Huskies who joined him Thursday night, in the African American Cultural Center, who made up the panel “Behind the Face Masks – The Voices of Black and Latino Male Student-Athletes.”

“I know, it’s deep,” Vann said. “Honestly, I did not know this place was here and my first time in here was during Bible study…. It’s refreshing to be here and it will be the rest of my senior year.”

The forum gave students and faculty on campus a chance to see the players and hear what’s on their minds from academic stereotypes to a holistic development that should be as essential as anything else they experience in college.

Defensive back Jordan Floyd, defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi, offensive lineman Gus Cruz who graduated in December and Angelo Pruitt, a defensive lineman who didn’t play last season after having ankle spurs cleaned out, joined Vann.

The panel discussion was all about getting to know the players and their experiences.

The “dumb jock” one hurts the most particularly to five players whose goals and college majors suggest otherwise. Pruitt got his degree in economics. Cruz, who came over from a the Dominican Republic when he was 11, has a degree in psychology and sociology.

Cooper asked the panel about their experiences.

“I just think when you see us and you see how athletic we are and you see us on the field it trumps anything else we have to offer so you see us as athletes rather than students,” Pruitt said.

Said Vann: “That stereotype is misplaced because a lot of us do have the academic potential to go to other institutions and excel academically. We can be very articulate, we can understand, critically think; we can analyze on different levels along with any other student in that university.”

Another stereotypical perception is that student-athletes have it easy.

“Well, I’ll paint the picture of my day [Wednesday],”Floyd said. “I woke up at 5 [a.m.] because I had a midterm that day. I got about five hours of sleep. I studied until 6:30, took a shower and went to the football facility for practice at 7:30. Practice for me is 7:30 to 11:40. I have class at 12:20. I’m trying to cram in as much studying as I can to try to do as well as I can to defy this dumb jock stereotype. Then I go to my class and then my other one after that from 2-3:15, I take a midterm and then we have mandatory study hours.”

Those take place in the football building. Floyd was there until 5 p.m., had dinner and then went back to study for a midterm he had Thursday.

The players were also asked about their relationships with students who are black and Latino but aren’t athletes, which they said is fine but still, for the most part, the student-athletes stick together because they seem to have more in common with each other.

The holistic approach to the college experience is important. The panel discussion Thursday was the first.

It won’t be the last if Cooper has anything to say about it.

Can’t be.

“My role as faculty is to make sure that these young men feel supported and they feel they’re getting as much of a full campus experience as possible,” Cooper said.

Vann is game. Moments after the discussion ended he was talking about bringing some of the younger Huskies over to the African American Cultural Center.

“Yeah, definitely, there’s a lot to offer here, a lot of things I just haven’t been able to get out to see,” Vann said.

Copyright 2015, Hartford Courant, March 12, 2015.

Angelo Pruitt Shares His Story At UConn Panel Discussion

Angelo Pruitt left the UConn football program as a senior last September.

Coach Bob Diaco said Pruitt’s decision was based on a lower leg injury stemming from a genetics issue that had already caused him to miss two games.

Pruitt sat on a panel titled “Behind The Facemasks: The Voices of Black and Latino Male Student-Athletes” at UConn Thursday night.

Defensive back Jordan Floyd, defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi, linebacker Marquise Vann and offensive lineman Gus Cruz joined Pruitt.

Pruitt, 6 feet 2, 287 pounds, was an effective defensive lineman for the Huskies, showing potential. He started the season opener against BYU last season before making his decision. He started 10 of 12 games in 2013 and had 25 tackles, six for a loss.

Pruitt and Cruz, while introducing themselves Thursday night, both announced they were going to pursue their NFL dream, which means they’ll be participating in UConn’s Pro Day March 31.

Pruitt earned his degree, like he promised his mom, in economics in December. He’s been busy doing other things, too, mainly working with young kids as part of the Husky Sport program, the community-campus partnership that utilizes the power of sport to connect Hartford and UConn stakeholders.

“I love it,” Pruitt said. “We go to Hartford, spend time with the kids. I enjoy it.”

Pruitt, from Cincinnati, committed to the Bearcats coming out of North College Hill High School, but never mentioned before Thursday how and why he elected to come to UConn instead. One of his best friends was shot and killed. He said he had to get away.

“It’s not really something I like to talk about,” Pruitt said. “It was three weeks before I came to school. It just opened my eyes that at any moment being in the neighborhood I was raised in and being around people who really didn’t have the same passion as me to live past a certain age, was difficult. My mother told me, and it was the day before I left, she said, ‘Baby, you can always come back home but it’s very seldom that people get to go away, travel, see new things, meet new people.’

“That’s what I did.”

The panel discussion, which ranged from how players deal with stereotypes to managing time as a student athlete to experiencing full college life, illustrated the challenges that student athletes face. The event was hosted by the Neag School of Education and Collective Uplift, which says its mission is to empower, educate and inspire ethnic minorities at UConn in order to maximize their potential as holistic individuals within and beyond athletic contexts.

Clean Slate

Everyone on offense starts with a clean slate, again, because there is a new offensive coordinator in Frank Verducci, and that’s just the way he wants it.

“I haven’t looked at one snap [on film from last year]. I just want to have clean eyes when I look at them,” Verducci said following the Huskies’ first spring practice March 7. “I will when spring is over … we’re strictly focused on ourselves and evaluation right now, and I explained to the players we have a depth chart but a priority above that is to evaluate certain people. If we had a guy change positions, we have to get him a volume of snaps so we can evaluate. The guy behind him? Don’t worry about it, that’s not the lineup for Villanova [season opener] necessarily.

“But we’ve got to come out of this with a great idea of where our talents are, how do we accentuate that talent and how we’re lining up two deep.”

The Huskies were at the bottom or near the bottom in most major offensive categories last season. Verducci, who also coaches running backs, said he has a talented group to work with and there are options.

“What we do with Arkeel [Newsome] might be a little different than what we do with Ron [Johnson],” he said. “Now you have to blur the lines enough that you’re not telecasting what you’re doing, but we’re certainly going to accentuate their individual talents at certain points … it’s also about having them improve as we go along.”

Johnson (429 yards and three touchdowns on 114 carries) led the Huskies rushing attack as the fourth starting running back of the season. Newsome finished with 47 carries for 188 yards, and 11 receptions for 155 and two TDs. Johnson and Newsome will be sophomores next season. … The Huskies’ defense ranked among the top 50 overall last season, in which there was a learning curve. “A year ago, we’re talking defense, saying words they had no idea what we are saying,” Diaco said. ” … Now they know those calls. Just think about the sign language of the call … now we already know the sign language, they know the call, and they know the other cultural pieces. Now we can start to talk about that next level of understanding.”

Copyright 2015, Hartford Courant, March 14, 2015.


Collective Uplift: How Research Could Reshape the Educational Experiences of Black Male Student-Athletes


Growing up in North Carolina and idolizing the likes of Michael Jordan and legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith, Joseph Cooper says he was not unlike many other kids raised in ‘basketball country’ – throughout his childhood, he had his sights set on playing sports professionally. Even up until he started his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cooper dreamt of making it to the NBA.

Quickly realizing, however, that “it wasn’t going to be my career trajectory,” Cooper found himself at a loss. “I had an identity crisis when I stopped playing basketball,” he says. “I started to ask questions like: Why do individuals like me feel this way when a certain aspect of our lives is no longer salient?”

And although he struggled to pinpoint a major that felt right to him at the time – changing his mind nearly half a dozen times – Cooper began to find his footing through extracurricular involvement outside of the athletics realm.

Co-founding a minority service organization at UNC known as Gentlemen of Leadership and Distinction and Ladies of Virtue and Excellence (GOLD-N-LOVE), which is still active today, Cooper says: “I started to understand that I had skill sets outside of playing basketball, and really believing that. It’s one thing to possess those skills and to perform on them – and another thing to internally believe that you have value in that way.”

Ultimately, this emerging sense of self-discovery guided Cooper down a winding path to the world of academic research. Now an assistant professor of sport management at UConn’s Neag School of Education, Cooper is taking the same kinds of questions he long wrestled with and is not only exploring them through qualitative and mixed methods research studies – but also applying his findings directly in reaching out to young black male student-athletes who face the same stereotypes and stigmas he once encountered himself.

Valuing Student-Athletes – Beyond Athletics

Throughout his academic career, Cooper has focused on the experiences of black male student-athletes, uncovering the ways in which they are stigmatized as intellectually inferior within educational spaces, constrained to think of themselves as valued only in an athletics context.

“When I see a lot of students of color, particularly student-athletes of color, not feeling comfortable in educational spaces, I understand that, and I think that’s a big part of the disconnect taking place in our educational pipeline,” he says. In addition to many student-athletes of color lacking role models in the educational realm, he adds: “What I found through the research was that many black student-athletes weren’t involved in campus organizations. They aren’t getting the full college experience; it seems like they’re in a silo.”

“I just felt like there should be a space, something that is intentionally designed to take into account their unique experiences as black males and foster their holistic development.”

-Assistant Professor Joseph Cooper, founder of Collective Uplift

His work also exposes the stark differences between graduation success rates of black male student-athletes and their peers. According to data published by the NCAA this past fall, for instance, black male student-athletes are graduating at a disproportionately lower rate (65 percent) than that of white male student-athletes (85 percent) – a gap that has persisted over time. Cooper believes there are long-standing, systemic inequalities that play a role in these differences. “There’s a lot of exploitation of black student-athletes,” he says. “Ultimately, athletics is at the core of a lot of the decisions that are made.”

“I just felt like there should be a space, something that is intentionally designed to take into account their unique experiences as black males and foster their holistic development,” he says.

A New Grassroots Effort

This past fall, Cooper turned that idea into an active outreach effort. He began reaching out to black male student-athletes at UConn, gathering them for weekly meetings as part of a new grassroots effort he calls Collective Uplift. The purpose behind Collective Uplift, Cooper says, is to empower, educate, and inspire ethnic minorities at UConn to maximize their full potential as holistic individuals, not exclusively in the realm of athletics, but also beyond.

The group – which now regularly comprises up to 10 UConn student-athletes of color – meets to discuss such topics as leadership development skills, resume building, and career options in the field of education, as well as to talk openly about their day-to-day experiences on campus and any other issues important to them.

“I’m not their coach; I’m not going to take away their scholarship. I’m not their advisor or professor; I don’t have control over their grades,” Cooper says. “They have a space to express themselves free of that type of judgment or any type of penalty. Ultimately, the goal is to help them view themselves as holistic individuals and nurture those holistic identities.”

Holistic development and empowerment, he says, are the core themes of Collective Uplift. “Those two things will facilitate their success in life – way beyond athletics.”

Unlike similar organizations across the nation, such as the NCAA CHAMPS Life Skills program, which supports the development of student-athletes at several NCAA member institutions, Collective Uplift is unique in that it focuses specifically on the experiences of black male student-athletes.

“You’ve got to have a testimony. You’ve got to have something to speak to, a lived experience that informs why you feel the way you feel about certain things…”

-Assistant Professor Joseph Cooper, founder of Collective Uplift

Ultimately, Cooper says he would like to see this kind of support system adapted nationwide to serve the needs of other subgroups within University student-athlete populations. “There are some unique challenges that student-athletes of color are facing,” he says; just as other campus services are designed to meet the needs of specific groups of students, this program could likewise be “mimicked with the guidance of research on different subgroups.”

10,000 Hours

Cooper’s academic research has, undoubtedly, informed his approach to Collective Uplift. His findings over time have led him to outline what he refers to as holistic development principles – a set of six qualities he says play a key role in an individual achieving his or her goals. Originally termed by Cooper as critical success factors, these six qualities had consisted of personal development, social harmony, engagement with a strong support system, career aspirations, time management skills, and spirituality and/or organized religion. More recently, Cooper has coined them as holistic development principles, updating them to include the following components: self-identity awareness, positive social engagement, active mentorship, academic achievement, career aspirations, and balanced time management.

For example, when Cooper talks about the critical success factor of personal development, he is quick to emphasize the influence of his mother, who encouraged Cooper and his brother, whom she raised alone, to stay involved in activities outside of sports.At the same time, he points to the importance of his own experiences in shaping his research interests – as well as in understanding the needs of Collective Uplift participants. “You’ve got to have a testimony,” he says. “You’ve got to have something to speak to, a lived experience that informs why you feel the way you feel about certain things and why you’re engaged in the type of work that you’re engaged in.”

“Whether I knew it or not, my mother definitely knew what she was doing. She was creating an identity for me, nurturing an identity that wasn’t connected to sport,” he says. “She knew that eventually the ball would go flat, the time on the clock would expire, and I would need to be prepared to excel in life outside of that.”

Cooper also remarks on the impact that the many books he has pored over throughout the years have had on his research ideas and his work with Collective Uplift. For instance, in reading best-seller Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Cooper says he began to consider an additional layer integral to the idea of time management.

“Gladwell talks about the idea that anybody who spends over 10,000 hours on something is an expert. I started to put that together,” Cooper says. “A lot of black males are celebrated for their athletic prowess…but a lot of that is just time spent on the activity. So if we can apply [in these student-athletes] that same mentality, that same time and effort and cultural support for academic endeavors, you’ll see the same success.”

Even as he continues to fine-tune the fundamentals of his six holistic development principles, Cooper shares his findings with the Collective Uplift participants, encouraging discussion around the ideas of academic achievement, career aspirations, and self-identity. The takeaway for these student-athletes, he hopes, is “to pay it forward, find their purpose and passion, and make a positive impact on the world. The more of us that are doing that, the less exploitation we’re going to see.”

For an insider’s look into Joseph Cooper’s ongoing efforts with Collective Uplift, check out this video.

Neag Spotlight, March 2015

Black, Latino Male Student Athletes Describe Their Lives Beyond Rentschler and Gampel


The athletes at UConn, especially basketball and football players, can be obvious, and the stereotypes and assumptions that they face force these individuals into a one dimensional character. As sophomore communications student and defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi put it, mainstream students make a snap judgement.

“A lot of people when they see us, automatically, is just oh, he’s here for his sport. There’s no sort of intelligence there whatsoever,” Fatukasi said.

Thursday evening’s panel discussion, entitled “Behind the Face Masks: The Voices of Black and Latino Male Student-Athletes” worked to disprove the “dumb jock” stereotype.

Panel moderator Dr. Joseph Cooper from the Neag School of Education asked the panelists to paint a picture of an average day, to show what really goes on behind the perceptions.

Junior political science student and UConn safety Jordan Floyd obliged, detailing a typical offseason day, that started at 5 a.m., and continued all the way to midnight.

Even this hectic schedule doesn’t paint the whole picture. During the season, athletes often have to travel to games. Gus Cruz, a recent graduate with a degree in psychology and sociology and an offensive lineman explained, “a Thursday night game, down in Florida, and you get back at 3 a.m., and your adrenaline is up, so you don’t get to bed until 5 a.m., only to get up at 7 a.m. to go to class.”

Angelo Pruitt, a recent graduate with a degree in economics and a defensive lineman, further elaborated, “I don’t have the energy to explain why I’m tired. I’m so tired I can’t tell you why I’m tired. I have arguments where people say ‘Well, my feet hurt,’ and I’ll ask what made their feet hurt, and they say ‘well, I walked to class.’ And I walked to class, and then I ran to practice, and then I ran through practice, and then I ran to the dining hall because I have five minutes to eat.”

The panelists had stories to share about experiences that tested their patience, when they’ve been boxed into the dumb jock stigma, and how they have to be very conscious of their involvement in the classroom.

Fatukasi was enrolled in a discussion based Women and Gender Studies class, and was confused when his advisor called him into a meeting. The advisor cautioned him to watch what he was saying in class, to make sure it wasn’t misconstrued by coming from a “large, black man.”

Floyd had a similar story about how he has to be careful when responding to comments from so-called normal students, who assume that a class will be easy when they see a group of athletes in it. Floyd, and other athletes, have to take a deep breath before reacting to these observations, to avoid an escalating situation.

“I can’t sit there and yell at the girl, or the guy who made the observation, because then it turns into a harassment case, and assault case, because it’s some big, black ball player yelling in the classroom,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway was best put by Marquise Vann, a senior linebacker in the individualized major program studying Urban Youth Development and Health.

“We can be very articulate, we can understand, we can critically think, we can analyze, along with any student in the university,” he said.

WHUS, March 13, 2015

Support Program Aims to be Game-Changer

When Black student-athletes arrive on campus on a sports scholarship, it’s a safe bet that their performance in stadiums and arenas will be priority while their education might end up on the sidelines.

Joseph Cooper, an education professor in the Sport Management Program at the University of Connecticut, is on a mission to turn that game around.

He is the founder of a student-athlete group called Collective Uplift, which emphasizes the holistic development of the student, not just what they can do to score points on the field or on the court.

The group meets regularly on campus to give Black male members of the Huskies a safe venue to explore their different roles and their relationship with the university, where Black students represent just 5 percent of the student population.

Participants say Collective Uplift has greatly enhanced their collegiate experience.

“It allows you to begin to think more critically about the environment you’re in, the situations you’re in,” said Marquise Vann, who sports the No. 46 jersey as an inside linebacker for the Huskies.

“You don’t have to come here like, ‘Oh, I’m going to the NFL,’ Vann said. “That doesn’t have to be the only mindset.”

The group – which features regular rap sessions and guest speakers from different career fields – gives players an opportunity to learn about various resources that are available on campus and to network with individuals from different walks of life.

“There’s many organizations around campus that do some of the same things that Collective Uplift does, but many of them are filled with normal students or students who aren’t football players, so their schedules are more flexible,” said Angelo Pruitt, a recent UConn graduate in economics who is currently training for the NFL draft.

With Collective Uplift, Pruitt said, there’s a certain camaraderie among members who share the same experience and “understand the things we go through.”

Both Pruitt and Vann said they had initially planned to study engineering, but settled on other majors once they discovered that engineering was incompatible with the demands of football. Pruitt studied economics and Vann has an “individualized” major.

In many ways, Collective Uplift is the culmination of years of research that Cooper has done on the unique challenges and circumstances that Black male student-athletes face at predominantly White institutions, or PWIs.

While prior researchers have observed that Black male student-athletes often arrive on campus with lower GPAs, lower college entrance exam scores and less likely to graduate than White student-athletes, Cooper posits that these things are a “product of systemic inequalities and the devaluation of educating and preparing Black males for success in life beyond athletic contexts.”

He believes that Collective Uplift – with its emphasis on a concept he refers to as “Excellence Beyond Athletics,” or EBA – holds promise as a model that can help achieve better academic outcomes on campus at other institutions of higher education.

“Given the uniqueness of Black males’ experiences and position within the U.S. educational pipeline, it is imperative to create programs that are data-driven and grounded in research on this subgroup of students that are intentionally designed to redress the challenges they face and empower them holistically,” Cooper wrote in a recent paper titled “Excellence Beyond Athletics: Best Practices for Enhancing Black Male Student Athletes’ Educational Experiences and Outcomes.”

The paper says the EBA approach consists of six holistic development principles, or HDPs. They are:

  • Self-identity awareness
  • Positive social engagement
  • Active mentorship
  • Academic achievement
  • Career aspirations
  • Balanced time management.

The strategies are meant to help Black male student-athletes counter what Cooper says can sometimes be an “exploitative” or “oppressive” system that seeks to capitalize off of their athletic abilities but fails to support them academically.

One doesn’t have to look hard for a contemporary example of such exploitation. Consider, for example, the recent UNC-Chapel Hill scandal in which student-athletes – many of them Black – were steered toward phony classes in the Black studies department.

One of Cooper’s aims is to empower Black male student-athletes to be able to effectively counter such exploitative practices through a “heightened level of consciousness of the various ways this system oppresses them.”

“However, consciousness alone cannot alter one’s position or outcome within a specific context,” Cooper wrote in the EBA paper. “Consciousness must be combined with internalized empowerment and engagement in counteractions in order to enact positive outcomes, particularly within an unjust and inequitable system.”

Cooper said that, despite the exploitative nature of college sports, it’s incumbent upon the athletes to make sure that they gain from the system, too.

“Don’t let the system use you,” Cooper said. “You also need to use the system as well.”

But he said college leaders also have a responsibility to set up students-athletes for success off the field and court as well.

“My argument of the exploitation comes in when you’re not creating the conditions that institutionally are designed to enhance them holistically,” Cooper said.

Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 29, 2015