Diversity in Sports: Is the Playing Field Equal?

Image credit: Flickr / Parker Michael Knight


Considering a Career in Sports

All week my husband and son will be watching college football teams compete in the NCAA FBS Bowl Championship Series. They will sit on the edge of their seats, watching the drama unfold on the screen. They become emotionally invested in the games–acting like the coaches and players can hear them when they yell advice about the plays that coulda, shoulda been called. They trade comments about players, plays and compete against each other when the announcers ask corporate-sponsored trivia questions. It is a rowdy and rambunctious time for father-son bonding.

My husband and son bond over more than just the watching of sports, though–they love to play, too. My son plays tackle football, basketball, and baseball. Who is his coach? You guessed it: his proud Papi.  He loves to play on several extracurricular teams after school and on weekends. In his unscheduled time he plays football or baseball in the yard, basketball at our local recreation center, or plays sports virtually with his friends online through his video game consul. It is hard to imagine his life without sports. He hasn’t yet met a game that he doesn’t love. He loves the feeling of being part of team, enjoys practicing, likes working towards a goal, and constantly challenges himself to improve his game—any game.

I wish, more than anything, for my son to be happy…but I also hope that he finds happiness somewhere besides in the world of sports. Why? Because college and professional sports paint a picture for boys of color that is extremely distorted and troublesome.  The message from professional sports leagues seems to be, “Play hard and you can get rich! It’s easy!” They never mention the fickle nature of fans, their dependence on corporate advertising, the small numbers of people who actually make it to the professional level. They never, ever, talk about the exploitation of players. Instead they focus on the glitz, glamor and rich lifestyles of athletes and their reality show wives.

TIDES & Diversity in Sports

According to The Institute on Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) research for 2011, in professional football and basketball a majority of the players are people of color (63% in the NFL and 83% in the NBA.) Yet most of the owners, coaches and stakeholders are white. At the college level, 52% of the players are black; but a significant number of those black student-athletes don’t graduate from college at the same rate as their white teammates. Graduation rates differ by as much as 21 percentage points.

TIDES compiles information about people of color and women in every aspect of sports, including Super Bowl advertising (how many people of color do you remember seeing in those multi-million-dollar-a-minute ads?) Those statistics alarm me–not only as a person who cares about social justice and equality, but also as a mom to a young athlete of color.

  • If things don’t change, my son could go to college to play sports, but he will have a lesser chance of graduating than his white peers.
  • If he graduates from college and becomes one of the less than 2% of athletes who make it to the professional level, he will be most likely be surrounded other athletes who look a lot like him, but work for white coaches, white owners, and white corporate sponsors.

This year as the men in my life watch the Bowl Championship Series, I will be wondering: how many of those players of color are going to graduate from college? How many will go on to be the real winners/moneymakers in professional sports (i.e. the coaches, owners, and corporate sponsors?) And will my son stand a chance in a system where his skills are valued on the field, but not so much off the field? All I can do is keep watching him roll his eyes at me every night at homework time as I remind him, “In order to be a college athlete, you have to be a college student.” He will need to prove himself, big time—both academically and athletically—in order to succeed at the highest level of sports.  What else can I do?