By Chandler Morris, Jack Hudson, and Alex Langan
Competitive sports have the ability to bring people together: the Super Bowl brings states together to root for their teams, collegiate athletics provide entertainment and funds for schools, and high school games promote school spirit. The playing field, however, can also reveal racial divides in America.
In both college and professional sports, there is a trend of African- Americans participating in basket- ball and football while Caucasian athletes tend to play sports such as soccer and lacrosse.
In the 2015 to 2016 season, the NCAA reported that college level basketball had 45.1 percent African American players and 40.5 percent Caucasian players; football was 37.8 percent African American and 49.6 Caucasian; soccer was 7.8 percent African- American and 61 percent Caucasian; and lacrosse was 3.4 percent African-American and 85.9 percent Caucasian.
On the professional level, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported in 2016 that the National Football League had 69.7 percent African-American Players and 27.4 percent Caucasian players; the National Basketball Association had 74.3 percent African-American players and 18.3 percent Caucasian players; and Major League Soccer had 11.8 per- cent African-American players and 48 percent Caucasian players.
According to Dr. Billy Hawkins, a professor at University of Houston who teaches and conducts research in sociology of sport and cultural studies, the divide seen on the professional level influences the divide in young athletes.
“What you see is racial grouping,” Dr. Hawkins said. “We see young African-American males and females participating in sports they see people that look like them participating in. They’re going to emulate their stars or their heroes, individuals that they think are great in a certain sport. Young African- American males see a lot of football and basketball players as their superstars.”
The deeper cause of the divide in sports, however, is a nationwide divide in socioeconomic status. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that median household income for African-Americans was $36,898, while the median household income for Caucasians was $62,950. This gap is exhibited on the playing field. According to Dr. Hawkins, the financial obligation of youth sports contributes to the deepening divide.
“When you look at the sports that are sort of segregated, I think a lot has to do with the financial obligation that is associated with them,” Dr. Hawkins said. “What we normally talk about is the country club sport versus the non-country club sports: cost for participation, extensive training or equipment that is associated with it. We’ll see a racial divide based on that, and, again, it’s because of class, as well as race.”
According to data from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, an organization dedicated to collecting information about athletic inclusion in America, athletes from families making $100k or more make up 27 percent of youth football players, 29 percent of basketball players, 35 percent of soccer players, and 56 percent of lacrosse players.
Football and basketball are more accessible for athletes from low-income families because there is more opportunity. Basketball has the least costs associated with it from equipment, and football produces more revenue and is therefore more likely to be subsidized than other sports.
High costs come into play, however, with young athletes’ choosing activities long before high school; many students have already played on club teams and gone through training.
“By the time these athletes are getting to high school, it’s kind of late,” Dr. Hawkins said. “When youth are entering into sports, there has to be opportunities that are made available to them at a very young age, so there is exposure to non-traditional sports in communities that haven’t had the opportunity to participate in them.”
According to Dr. Donald Spivey, a professor at the University of Miami who specializes in African-American labor, sport, music and education, motivation for a college athletic scholarship, in many cases, drives students decisions of what sports to play and the African-American community is more affected by the consequences of going to college for athletics.
“Caucasians tend to see more options of mind and more options in terms of what [they] want to do,” Dr. Spivey said. “Part of [the emphasis on athletics in the African-American community] is due to the racial legacy in this country where in fact there were not these equal opportunities out there, so when African-Americans saw what gates were open, they tended to gravitate towards those gates.”
According to Dr. Spivey, while this provides opportunities for students to go to college, it can be harmful in the long run. “The worst consequence of all this is that it places too much emphasis on athletics,” Dr.Spivey said.“If you’re a young African- American kid and you’re looking at T.V., who are you going to see? You’re going to see star football players, star basketball players; you’re probably not going to see college professors, physicists, writers and authors. There will be a tendency to keep promoting that as the way to success, and that’s one of the most
serious consequences of emphasis on sport.”