By Chandler Morris, Alex Langan, Jack Hudson
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 basketball 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 percent 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’ chosing 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.”
Soccer Team Lacks Diversity
The Knights soccer team is one of the few sports at Grady with a majority Caucasian roster. While soccer is one of the most popular and diverse sports in the world, the team at Grady has only three African-American players and two foreign-born players out of the 20 players on its varsity roster, despite the fact that the school is only 30 percent Caucasian. Some of the players credit the sport’s demographics to early exposure.
“It’s just based around how those kids were raised,” sophomore left back Nicho Cucchi said. “I have known this large group of players from a young age, and they have just worked on [soccer] for a long period so their skill has gotten them spots on junior varsity and varsity. They possess the skill to make those teams, and it is how it is.”
Grady’s soccer demographics mirror the national level. According to National Collegiate Athletic Association, 92 percent of college soccer athletes in the 2015-2016 year were Caucasian. Since 1999, 6,621 more Caucasian students have joined soccer teams, whereas 1,710 African-Americans students joined their college soccer team.
“In African-American communities, there’s more of a push to play basketball or football, with kids in those communities growing up seeing players like LeBron James and Cam Newton,” junior goalkeeper Colin Thomasson said. “For soccer, there’s a lot of people in Caucasian communities who start out playing in youth leagues such as Inter Atlanta Football Club.”
Coaches have also noticed the problem and are working to make sure other inner-city schools have prominent soccer programs like Grady’s.
“It’s a tough call,” Grady soccer coach Nikolai Curtis said. “It might be an exposure thing, and it might be where it’s based and where it’s more popular. Football players are mostly minorities because that’s what’s popular in their communities. Then there’s soccer, which is one of the most popular games in the world, so it’s very diverse. Diversity is a problem for me [at Grady], and I’d like to see [the diversity of] soccer teams expand in other Atlanta Public Schools.”
Every player who made the varsity soccer team this season also plays for local club teams outside of the school team’s season. One of the most popular club teams in the Grady district is Inter Atlanta FC, which, while located in the city, is in an affluent majority Caucasian area. Players believe that the creation of new youth soccer leagues in more low-income, majority African-American areas will improve diversity in the sport.
“I think the lack of youth soccer leagues is why there is a lack of diversity. There just aren’t many as many soccer leagues in the inner city,” junior midfielder Alex Westin said. “They need to promote more leagues in the city as opposed to the outskirts.”
Players who participate in other sports in addition to soccer, particularly those who play on majority African-American teams at Grady, have not noticed many changes in the operations of the teams.
“Even though I’m a minority playing football, there’s not a lot of change. We are a family and we all have one goal,” junior soccer and football player Quinn Cowden said. “Race has never been an issue on that team. There is the occasional joke, but it’s all fun and games. I’ve never really cared about being in the majority on the soccer team, but I have noticed the lack of diversity.”
Players also have noticed how the parents of athletes seem to follow what sports other parents in their communities place their kids in.
“More African-American people in the city were raised to play football and basketball because those are popular sports in Atlanta,” Cowden said. “There are more Caucasian people playing soccer because they were playing at the club level since they were very young. It all depends on how the people’s parents raised them. A lot of parents shadow other parents in the communities.”
Lacrosse team finds balance
Lacrosse is not known as an ethnically diverse sport. Across the nation, Caucasian suburbanites, who make up the wealthy class of this country, dominate the sport. However, at Grady, lacrosse is not reflective of the sport’s overall demographic. Both the boys and girls teams have a significant number of minorities, which can be attributed to the school’s diversity as well as efforts by the coaching staffs to keep the teams heterogeneous.
This was not always the case. In the spring season of 2014, the team was mostly Caucasian and barely had enough players to take the field. Last season, coach Terry Jones came on from the football team and brought with him many new players, mostly African-American, who played football in the fall and were looking to play a sport in the spring.
“She [Athletic Director Myss Jelks] needed somebody that knew about some of the athletes, not just the guys who play lacrosse, but some of the guys who played basketball and football,” Jones said.
Along with Jones, the football team’s coaching staff encouraged their players to join, and with spring sports being limited to soccer, swimming, baseball, track, and lacrosse, most of those looking to play a sport during the spring joined the lacrosse team.
“I really didn’t ever see myself playing [lacrosse],” senior Theron Anches said. “I just kind of started out of nowhere last year after football season ended, and I wanted something to do during the spring.”
With these new players, the team became more diverse, and Grady lacrosse has become a great example of how the sport is evolving.
“I’d say the team was 75-80 percent Caucasian before many football players joined,” senior Zion Whigham said. “After we had a flood of players, [the team] is closer to 50-50 percent. Because we go to a diverse school, our balance in diversity in the team isn’t surprising.”
Despite Grady’s achievements in diversifying the sport, other teams across the nation still lag behind. For many schools, lacrosse remains an upper-class sport played by Caucasians.
“Since we’re in the middle of the city, our team isn’t representative demographically of lacrosse as a whole,” Whigham said. “The sport is mostly known to be a suburban Caucasian kid sport and is mostly Caucasian as far as all the teams we play.”
According to US Lacrosse, the governing body for lacrosse in the United States, less than 10 percent of lacrosse players come from households with incomes of less than $50,000, and nearly 75 percent of all lacrosse-playing families value their primary residence at $200,000 or more. Additionally, a 2010 NCAA study found that 1.9 percent of NCAA Division I college lacrosse players were African-American and that fewer than 10 percent were non Caucasian.
The price of the sport, cultural divides and a general lack of awareness contribute to this unintentional societal segregation.
Helmets cost around $100, sticks range between $100 and $300, gloves around $50, and the pads costing about $70. In order to play the sport competitively, this equipment is required. Unlike soccer or basketball where you just need shoes and a ball to play. The sport currently has roots in Caucasian culture and a lack of popularity in minority culture. Most people play sports they are familiar with, and lacrosse has not branched into other cultures like it has with Caucasians.
“A lot of girls are not really familiar with the sport and don’t want to play it,” Martha Jones, the girl’s lacrosse coach said. “Most of the girls, especially the African-American girls, want to play the traditional sports like basketball, track, and they don’t want to learn a new sport.”
Both the girls and boys coaches said a lack of awareness is the biggest contributor to this cultural divide.
“When it comes to lacrosse, it’s the fastest-growing sport in America,” said coach Terry Jones. “But in the urban area, a lot of people don’t know how to play it yet. It’s all about education. It’s not a African-American or a Caucasian thing, it’s about exposing those kids to the sport.”
Efforts to diversify are being taken. Organizations like US Lacrosse are creating programs to expose those who are not familiar with the game, and break that stereotype that it is a “suburban Caucasian kid sport.”
“I do clinics sometimes for girls just to get them familiar with the sport,” coach Martha Jones said. “I volunteer with this organization called sporty girls, and it gets girls involved in non traditional sports and that [lacrosse] is one of them.”
Both coaches hope to see diversification in the coming years, and as more and more programs evolve across the country, the more diversity there will be.
“Once you start understanding the game, understanding what’s going on, it’s a really cool sport,” Coach Terry Jones said. “It’s just about being exposed.”
An even playing field
Across the nation, experts and statistics indicate that unintentional racial grouping exists in professional, collegiate and high school sports. Basketball and football are traditionally African-American sports, while lacrosse and soccer tend to be majority Caucasian sports. This trend starts and is evident in high schools, including Grady.
While Grady has a diverse student body and reaps benefits from it, being 49 percent African-American, 38 percent Caucasian, 6 percent Latino/Hispanic, 5 percent Multiracial and 2 percent Asian, statistics show that Grady athletics do not follow this trend.
Grady varsity boy’s basketball is 100 percent African-American and varsity football is 93.75 percent African-American and 6.25 percent Caucasian. Varsity girls basketball is 83.4 percent African-American and 16.6 percent Caucasian.
According to Coach Brian Weeden, Grady’s boysvarsity basketball coach, there is a lack of diversity in the group of athletes who try out for the basketball team.
“I don’t think there’s a lack in diversity, I think there is a lack of kids trying out. For instance with the basketball team, I don’t have any Caucasian kids coming and trying out. They always play recreation league sports,” Weeden said. “We had two Caucasian males try out, and they both made the team, but one ended up playing soccer instead.”
Weeden said however, that he encourages anybody interested in basketball to try out for the team.
“I’m the type of coach that I don’t care what race you are. I don’t care how tall or big you are, or what grade you’re in, if you can play, you can play,” Weeden said.
Players on the basketball team also notice how demographics play out in who is on Grady sports teams. Jaelyn Smith, a junior on the team, believes certain races are more prevalent in different sports teams.
“That’s because some people aren’t exposed to some sports until they’re at an older age, and in some instances, it’s too late,” Smith said.
Grady’s football team has the same issue. According to coach Earthwind Moreland, Grady’s varsity football coach, based on Grady’s demographics there should be more diversity in the athletic programs.
“I think that the sports at Grady are pretty diverse but I would like to see others come out and participate in football and wrestling and other sports. I think there’s enough diversity in the school itself that the sports can be pretty diverse,” Moreland said. “I don’t think that this necessarily affects the teams, but I think that the fanbase would increase with more diversity.”
Football players agreed that the grouping might exist because student athletes tend to join sports that they see kids they have similarities with playing those sports.
Although there is a trend of racial grouping in athletics, sports and the diversity within them still form a strong bond between students.
“I never really think of it [racial diversity on the team] because if you are on the same team as me, I consider my brother anyway when we are on the field together,” Trysten Fowler, a junior on the football team said.