Rutgers Course Examines Issues of Black Males in Contemporary American Culture

Rutgers Course Examines Issues of Black Males in Contemporary American Culture

Alumnus John Paxton encourages student athletes to look beyond sports, become social change agents

John Paxton
Photo: Tae Kim

'Young black males are given too few outlets to be considered special in America beyond basketball and football and, unfortunately, they are wholesale swallowing garbage that tells them they shouldn’t expect more from their lives than running with a ball.'– John Paxton

John Paxton’s eighth grade teacher Linda McDevitt regularly reminded the former basketball player that “knees give out, but brains don’t.”

Today, Paxton considers it his mission to impart similar concepts to Rutgers student athletes enrolled in his course, “Blacks and Economic Structures,” as they negotiate the academic system and identify professional options beyond sports.

“Many young athletes assume they will keep playing and will make a lot of money, but it rarely works out that way,” says Paxton, a three-time Rutgers alumnus and adjunct instructor who has taught the popular Africana Studies course for 10 years.

Indeed, a mere 1.7 percent of NCAA football players make the transition from collegiate athlete to a spot on an NFL team; the numbers are even lower for basketball players angling for the NBA (1.2 percent) and WNBA (0.9 percent). And even if a player is drafted by a professional team, there is no telling how long his or her career will last.

“Everyone thinks they will be the exception, but no one is indestructible,” Paxton says.

The course, in which male athletes regularly outnumber female students 6:1, explores the influence of American economics, history and politics on the psychological and social development of black males.  For example, this semester includes an analysis of public education and prison systems and their impact on contemporary black men.

“I wish I could say that the election of a black president has changed the prototypical experience of black men in America, but stigmatizing rhetoric is still circulating,” says Paxton.  He encourages students to consider societal ills – underemployment, gang violence, poverty, inequities of any kind – and develop strategies to resolve them. His advice to students: “Don’t point fingers at others; let’s correct from within.” 

Paxton was born and raised in Atlantic City in the shadows of big casinos and big crime.  Death, drug kingpins and upheaval were par for the course; his family was robbed five times and his best friend murdered at age 15. He believes he managed to avoid the pitfalls of drugs and violence because his father and mother aggressively pushed an academic agenda in their household. “There was no easy way out with my parents,” Paxton recalls. “We had to focus on school. Education was the only option.”

Paxton left Atlantic City to attend Rutgers in New Brunswick, from which he graduated with a B.A. in psychology. Later, he received two master’s degrees from the university, one in education and another in counseling. He knew he wanted to teach and began his career in grade school classrooms but says he felt restricted by the small class sizes. He finds the college environment more suitable to both his teaching style and his desire to influence more young people, particularly athletes who may not have considered other career paths.

“Young black males are given too few outlets to be considered special in America beyond basketball and football and, unfortunately, " he says, "they are wholesale swallowing garbage that tells them they shouldn’t expect more from their lives than running with a ball.”

Paxton accepted the challenge to teach “Blacks and Economic Structures” on the recommendation of his mentor and former professor Prosper Godonoo, who serves as director of Rutgers’ Paul Robeson Cultural Center. Godonoo, whose work showcases the contributions of African Americans to the university community, reminded Paxton, his mentee, of the extensive mentorship he’s received over the years and asked him to pay it forward.

Having been guided by educators who extended themselves, Paxton champions earnest black male mentors beyond one’s own family. “Access to formal and informal mentorship is critical to address the social needs of African American males,” says Paxton, a husband and the father of two daughters who encourages his students to excel on the fields and courts, in the classrooms, and in their respective communities. “For some of the students, what I offer is their first experience with someone who cares about their development who isn't a family member or seeking something from them.”

Many students like junior Jerome Seagears have taken the course on the recommendation of fellow athletic team members who had only positive comments about the course, Paxton’s teaching style, and his mentorship during and following enrollment. “[Professor Paxton] helps us unlock parts of the mind that aren’t ignited in other courses,” says the Scarlet Knights point guard from Silver Spring, Maryland.

Seagears says the course also serves as an introduction to influential and formidable male figures of African descent for many students, including Mansa Musa and Malcolm X.  “He makes sure that we won’t place limits on ourselves,” Seagears says. “That’s information I’ll be able to use in the real world to be able to give back to others.” 

Though the odds are not always in their favor, a few of Paxton’s former students have graduated into successful careers in professional sports. He has nothing but praise for those who are now socially conscious NFL players, including Ray Rice and the McCourty twins, for their work to combat bullying and sickle cell, respectively. Even Eric LeGrand took the course via Skype following his spinal injury. The professor says #52 never missed a day of class even with his rigorous rehabilitation schedule.

“Athletes have to be aware that they are de facto role models and govern themselves accordingly,” Paxton says. “These guys are using their celebrity to work for others and that should be applauded and encouraged.”