Click for original photoIn education, extra-curricular sports are encouraged as an excellent way to develop skills, build community, and encourage physical fitness. While there are numerous benefits for having sports in schools, educators need to be aware of issues that may put kids at risk for marginalization in the future.

When we take a look at the state of professional sports in North America, we see a distinct division of sport along racial lines. Professional sports leagues, the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) (to a somewhat lesser extent) have increasingly been dominated by Black players — if not by numbers alone, then by success. Considering that Black players were banned from these professional sports up until the late 1940s, it is a remarkable turnaround (Siegel, 2003). Some may look at this as a sign of progress, a way out for at-risk youth who apparently have no other options; but, is this really true?

There are very few studies of Black Canadians in sports and even fewer, if any, on Asian Canadians, Native Canadians and racialized females. However, because Canadian views on “race” have been influenced by the United States due to our proximity (Coakley & Donnelly, 2009) and the fact that many Canadian athletes go on to play in professional American sports leagues, the statistics on Blacks from these leagues can be applicable in a Canadian context. Some of these statistics around representation are staggering (see Table 1). It is interesting to note that the percentage of Blacks in Canada’s total population was 2.5% in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2006) while the U.S.A. had a 12.6% Black population in 2010 (United States Census Bureau, 2011).

 

Table 1: Representation of Black Players in Major Sports Leagues

Professional League

% of Black players (2009)

National Basketball Association

77

National Football League

67

Major League Baseball

9

Table 1 – Note: Values are percentages, retrieved from:
Lapchick, R. (2010, April 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball.
Lapchick, R. (2010, June 9). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association.
Lapchick, R. (2010, September 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League.

 

There is a blatant overrepresentation of Black players in the NBA and NFL; while the MLB’s numbers may seem more reflective of the population, a closer look is needed to reveal the overrepresentation there. Looking at the statistics of certain player positions in the NFL and MLB reveals even more insights into the issue of representation (see Table 2).

Why then, is there so much disparity not only in the overall representation but by position as well? There are popular stereotypes that cite biological reasons; these say that Blacks, through some sort of natural selection, have a genetic advantage over other races. However, this reasoning is quite precarious. The science and biology of race has long perpetuated the idea of intellectual racial superiority and has been used for the justification of colonization, slavery, and genocide. In fact, the Human Genome Project has verified that there is no classification of races as a biological concept (Coakley & Donnelly, 2009). This pseudoscientific belief has immediate consequences for education — if teachers perpetuate the stereotype that Blacks are genetically built for sports, this not only diminishes the significance of athletic achievement amongst Black students, but it also reduces their intellectual expectations. The reasoning will then be: if Black athletes do well at sports, it must be because of their natural physical abilities whereas White athletes (who supposedly are not as blessed biologically) must have excellent character, exercise a strong will, and possess great intellect to achieve the same success (Coakley & Donnelly, 2009).

When educators encourage Black students to join sports while discouraging academics, they fail to recognize the full potential and educational aspirations of many Black students. These students then begin to believe the stereotypes and reduce the importance of their academic performance while giving priority to their roles as athletes (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2009). It is more likely that Blacks excel at these sports not because of biological advantages but because they see sports as the only path to success or for Black inner-city kids, a ticket out of poverty (Siegel, 2003).

 

Table 2: Representation of Black Players by Position

National Football League

% of Black players
(2009)

Cornerback

98

Running back

87

Wide receiver

87

Center

18

Quarterback

16

Major League Baseball

% of Black players
(2009)

Outfield

28

Pitcher

4

Catcher

1


Table 2 – Note: Values are percentages, retrieved from:
Lapchick, R. (2010, June 9). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association.
Lapchick, R. (2010, September 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League.

 

Sadly, even when Blacks make it into the professional leagues, they still face many inequalities. In Table 2, we see that there is great underrepresentation in sports positions that traditionally are leaders on the team: quarterbacks, centers, pitchers, and catchers. Furthermore, the few Blacks who do become quarterbacks in the NFL (e.g. Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Jason Campbell, and Vince Young) experience continuous controversy and scrutiny throughout their careers. The lack of representation of Blacks in leadership or positions of authority is even further evident when examining the non-players in sports leagues: head coaches, staff, and owners (see Table 3).

 

Table 3: Representation of Blacks in Non-Player Positions by League (2009)

Professional Leagues

Head Coaches

Staff

Owners

National Basketball Association

27%

21%

2%

National Football League

19%

12%

0%

Major League Baseball

14%

10%

0%


Table 3 – Note: Values are percentages, retrieved from:
Lapchick, R. (2010, April 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball.
Lapchick, R. (2010, June 9). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association.
Lapchick, R. (2010, September 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League.

 

This begins to paint a disturbing picture. Black students may make progress towards professional sports believing that sports may be their only avenue to achieve success — only to be marvelled at for their physical sample. Watching the NFL Combine bares a chilling resemblance of a time when Blacks had no choice but to perform physically for a living:

 

He reported how the slaves, eager to impress potential masters who they perceived as kind, would sometimes cheerfully respond to buyers “…pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound..”
(A slave auction in 1857) (PBS, 2001)

 

The NFL Combine is a showcase of college football players who perform physical and mental tests to demonstrate their size, health, speed, agility, and strength to teams that may potentially draft them. At the Combine, representatives from all teams gather to observe the players and run them through drills to test how fast, strong, and agile they are while the sports media wonder in awe at the physical feats and performances of the players. The NFL draft then takes place afterwards where teams, after making their evaluations, will pick the players who performed best to join their teams.

Ironically, as player salaries rise and ticket prices increase, it becomes harder for those in a lower socio-economic status [a large portion of whom are Black (LaVeist, 2005)] to attend the games. Consequently, Black players once they are drafted, then enter the league mostly as running backs, wide receivers and defence to then play for a mostly White coaching staff, a mostly White managerial team, get paid by a White owner, and compete against each other as a group of mostly Black players in front of an increasingly White group of fans (Siegel, 2003). The good news is that they get paid.

Is this the sole aspiration educators want for Black students? Surely there is nothing wrong with being a professional athlete, but should this be the only hope for a Black student? In today’s society we wonder why Black youth are increasingly stigmatized — but have we taken a close enough look at what happens in our schools? There are many ways teachers can make a difference and the first is by examining their own attitudes, expectations, and behaviours. Teachers need to acknowledge their biases and not be quick to label students as, “low achievers, learning disabled, drop-outs, disruptive, trouble-makers, problem-students, rebellious, and individuals who are likely to get into illegal activities” (James, 2008). Teachers also need to have the same expectations of their students and use fair treatment for all. If little is expected of a student — whether academically or athletically —they will provide little effort. Finally, teachers should help students develop an understanding of their own cultural identities along with the identities of the other students in the classroom. Both students and teachers must learn that cultural differences should be appreciated rather than critiqued against a Eurocentric standard. Students’ identities need to be reflected in the curriculum; they need see role models that they can identify with culturally to show them that there are no constraints on what they can achieve. Teachers must illustrate to students that they can be artists, plumbers, politicians, or inventors, and not just limited to rappers and sports athletes.

 

Bibliography

Coakley, J., & Donnelly, P. (2009, February 12). Race and Ethnicity: Are They Important in Sports? Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies (Second Canadian Edition). Canada: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

James, C. (2008, August 12). Stereotyping and its consequence for racial minority youth. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from Ontario Human Rights Commission: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/issues/racism/racepolicydialogue/cj/pdf

Lapchick, R. (2010, April 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball. Retrieved April 5, 2011, from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport: http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010_MLB_RGRC.pdf

Lapchick, R. (2010, June 9). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association. Retrieved April 5, 2011, from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport: http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010_NBA_RGRC.pdf

Lapchick, R. (2010, September 29). The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Football League. Retrieved April 5, 2011, from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport: http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010-NFL-Racial-and-Gender-Report-Card.pdf

LaVeist, T. A. (2005). Disentangling Race and Socioeconomic Status: A Key to Understanding Health Inequalities. Journal of Urban Health
, 82 (2), 26-33.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2009, December). Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discimination. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/RacismPolicy/pdf

PBS. (2001, February 1). People and Events: The Weeping Time . Retrieved April 06, 2011, from Africans in America: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2918.html

Siegel, D. (2003, Spring). Race and Sport. Retrieved April 1, 2011, from Sport: In Search of the American Dream: http://www.science.smith.edu/exer_sci/ESS200/Raceh/Raceh04.htm

Statistics Canada. (2006). Visible Minority Groups. Retrieved April 5, 2011, from 2006 Census of Canada: http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/tbt/Rp-eng.cfm?LANG=E&APATH=3&DETAIL=0&DIM=0&FL=A&FREE=0&GC=0&GID=0&GK=0&GRP=1&PID=92338&PRID=0&PTYPE=88971,97154&S=0&SHOWALL=0&SUB=802&Temporal=2006&THEME=80&VID=0&VNAMEE=&VNAMEF=

United States Census Bureau. (2011, March). Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010 Census Briefs. Retrieved April 5, 2011, from http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf