Chapter 3


Race and Sport

The issue of race and sport in the United States is somewhat baffling in that many persons would rather it not be addressed at all even though sport has been intricately intertwined with racial issues in the United States throughout the Twentieth Century (e. g., The Black Athlete, 1989). Those who would have us omit the topic altogether argue that analyses typically single out the black athlete, and then attempt to explain his/her inordinate success in ways different than we do that of other groups. Critics contend that this approach is racist, since it perpetuates the idea that blacks are different, and often inferior. Edwards (1972) asserts that a typical theme resulting from such analyses is that blacks are physically superior, but intellectually inferior, to whites. Hoberman (1997) has further made the case that physical prowess, especially in such sports as basketball, has become a defining characteristic of the African-American community, and that beliefs about physical superiority are closely yoked to an anti-intellectualism that permeates black male culture. Essentially, Hoberman’s argument is that inordinate attention to and idolization of prominent black athletes such as Michael Jordan has focused attention away from other more realistic and important role models, and this, in turn has stunted intellectual, social and economic development in the black community.

Notwithstanding Edwards and Hoberman’s observations on the inverse relationship between physical prowess and intellectual acumen, most studies assessing black-white differences in athletic performance have focused on physical and physiological parameters, and have typically found blacks to be more physically suited than whites for activities requiring speed and power. If interpreted on face value without critical analysis, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that such differences are innate and racially determined. As Edwards (1972) points out, this might lead some to conclude that blacks evolved differently than whites and remain at a more primitive evolutionary level because they are more closely associated with lower animals who are also known to possess greater speed and strength. On the other hand, it is only a short leap to believing that whites evolved to a higher intellectual level than blacks because they dominate virtually all other areas. Consequently, an explanation of black dominance in major sports which focuses predominately on physical differences between blacks and whites often results in reinforcing stereotypical ideas about black physical prowess rather than exploring the significance of motivation, intellect, discipline and hard work in accounting for athletic success.

The belief that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites can best be illustrated in a sport context by the comments made by former Los Angeles Dodger Vice President for player personnel, Al Campanis on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival into major league baseball. Campanis was invited to appear on ABC's Nightline hosted by Ted Koppel. During the interview, Campanis was asked why he thought so few blacks were in management positions in baseball. Campanis replied: "I truly believe they may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager" (Wilhelm, 1987, p. 46). He also stated that blacks were not adapted to be swimmers because of a lack of buoyancy. Although Campanis was fired within 48 hours for his comments, it is interesting to note that he was considered to be one of baseballs more notable equal-opportunity employers (Neff, 1987), and had a reputation for fairness (Callahan, 1987). Interestingly, Frank Robinson, baseball’s first black manager, in a subsequent interview stated that Campanis was a descent man who simply was a product of baseball’s traditional thinking (Wilhelm, 1987).

Such stereotypical thinking was apparently not an innocuous private matter unique to Campanis, since at the time only three blacks had managed major league teams, and only Henry Aaron held an administrative position of any authority, as Vice President and Director of Player Development for the Atlanta Braves. Frank Robinson, when asked whether he was surprised by Campanis’ remarks, corroborated Edwards assertion in responding that there was a widely held belief in baseball "... that blacks aren't smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There's a belief that they're fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can't handle it" (Wilhelm, 1987, p. 46).

Ideas about race related physical differences have also been prevalent, and most certainly were responsible for the comments of former CBS sportscaster Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder. In January of 1988, he asserted that blacks were not only better athletes than whites, but heredity was primarily the reason. He stated that blacks were bred to be better athletes than whites because slave owners during the civil war bred "...his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid." He went on to say that such breeding resulted in blacks having bigger thighs than whites which gave them an advantage in athletics (Ballad, 1988). In contrast, he also asserted that white athletes tended to be lazy and did not practice while blacks did put in the time to excel. Like Campanis, he commented on blacks and coaching by stating ''They've got everything. If they take over coaching like everybody wants them to, there's not going to be anything left for the white people. I mean all the players are black. The only thing the whites control are the coaching jobs''(Ballard, 1988, p.7). CBS promptly fired Snyder, who had worked for the network for 12 years.

Seemingly, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Snyder was racist, and his off the cuff remarks about black dominance in the major sports simply reflected a negative bias against blacks succeeding so emphatically solely because of physical capacities for which they were not responsible. However, as pointed out by Seligman (1988), an analysis of what Snyder actually said really was prejudicial against whites who he labeled as lazy and not willing to put in the practice time necessary to excel, while he lauded the preeminence of blacks who worked hard to be better athletes. It was also noted that a number of Snyder’s acquaintances conveyed that he was not a racist, and had even paid for the college tuition of black children from poor backgrounds with no fanfare. In light of the literature which has existed over the years comparing white and black samples that typically shows blacks superior to whites on a number of parameters which affect speed and power, it may just be that Snyder simply distorted and embellished this information. In an analysis of this incident, Seligman (1988) suggests that Jimmy’s "...sin lay in simply saying out loud what millions of Americans know, which is that the races have different physiques on average" (p. 123). According to Seligman, had Jimmy articulated a more politically correct environmental explanation for racial differences, such as discrimination reinforcing attraction to and away from various activities, he would have been revered rather than lambasted.

Despite the beliefs about race based abilities that commentators, managers, coaches, owners, and administrators hold, there are also stereotypes held by performers themselves which are likely to inhibit or enhance their involvement in an activity. If a black child believes that she will never be a competitive swimmer because of a lack of buoyancy, but thinks that she has a biological advantage in sprinting, she will probably self-select herself into the latter activity. By the same token, if a white child believes that he can not jump high because of race based physical limitations, but has the hand-eye coordination necessary for a sport like tennis, he too will direct his energies to that which he thinks will bring him success. Seemingly, such beliefs mediate the direction and intensity of behavior, as much, if not more so than heredity, and can account for current sport demographics. As well, beliefs, like genes, tend to be passed down from generation to generation making the resolution of nature-nurture debates difficult, if not impossible.

Consequently, the argument for examining this area is to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Are performance disparities between black and white athletes really a function of fundamental differences in physique and physiology, or are they a result of environmental and cultural contingencies? Contrary to what some may argue, an objective examination of these issues attempts to fairly examine the evidence, and to challenge beliefs held and conveyed by individuals such as Al Campanis and Jimmy ‘the Greek" Snyder. In the end, we may find that these individuals, like many others are not really bigots, but simply misinformed about what really is known about race and performance. Seemingly, knowledge can help us get beyond the false stereotypes that pervade our thinking, and help us to direct our behavior in more productive directions. In the words of athletic geneticist Claude Bouchard "... I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. And that knowledge is the greatest safeguard against prejudice" (The Black Athlete, 1989).


Observations of Demographics

Perhaps the reason that racial issues in sport capture the attention of so many people is a result of demographics. African-Americans, who earlier in the century were segregated into black leagues, have in less than 50 years become the dominant racial group in basketball and football, despite the fact that they only make up 12.6% of the US population (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). Today black players constitute 77% of the NBA, 64% of the WNBA, 65% of the NFL, and 15% of MLB (Lapchick and Mathews, 1999). As well, in college 60% of male Division I basketball players and 51% of football players are black. African-American females constitute 35% of Division I basketball players and 31% of cross country-track and field athletes (NCAA, 1988). From the era of Jackie Robinson when black athletes in white leagues were an anomaly, to the present day, a role reversal has come about. As seen in Table 1, black athletes emerged from segregated black leagues after World War 2, and have become disproportionately represented in basketball, football, track and field, boxing, and to a lesser extent in baseball. This swift demographic shift has stimulated a great deal of interest in the question of why blacks have become such a dominant force in our major sports.

Table 1. Changing Demographics in Major Sports.



In 1949 there were no black NBA players.

In 1950 Chuck Cooper was the first black signed by an NBA team.

In 1958 the proportion of blacks in the general population approximated the percentage of blacks playing professional basketball.

In 1998, 77% of all professional basketball players were black.




In 1944 there were no blacks in professional "white" football.

In 1946 Marion Motley is the first black in "white" professional football.

In 1960 the proportion of blacks in the general population approximated the percentage of blacks playing professional football.

In 1985, 52% of all professional football players were black.

In 1998 65% of all professional football players were black.




In 1946 there were no blacks in "white" MLB.

In 1947 Jackie Robinson was the first black to sign with a "whit" team

In 1957 the proportion of blacks in the general population approximated the percentage of blacks playing professional baseball (11-12%).

In 1998 15% of all professional baseball players were black.


As might be expected, intercollegiate athletics have paralleled the professional story. For example in 1948 - 10% of college basketball teams had a black member. By 1966 - 45% of college basketball teams had a black member. In 1975 - 92% of college basketball teams had a black member (Berhorn and Yetman, 1976). In 1997 - 61% of male Division 1 basketball players were black. Perhaps the rise of the black collegiate athlete is demonstrated best by inclusion in the SEC, the last major athletic conference to integrate (Eitzen and Sage, 1986). In 1968 there were 11 blacks on athletic scholarship in the SEC, but Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi, Mississippi State, LSU, and Georgia remained all white. By 1970 there were 41 blacks receiving scholarships and only LSU and Mississippi did not have a black athlete. But by 1972 there were 100 blacks playing on SEC football teams and many others participating in basketball and track. Eitzen and Sage (1986) point out that by this time Tennessee and Mississippi had black starting quarterbacks. They also dramatize the rise of the black athlete in conveying that at the University of Alabama in 1968 no blacks were on any of its teams, but by 1975 its basketball team had an all black starting line-up! Given that just 12 years earlier, Governor George Wallace physically blocked black students from enrolling at the University, this was remarkable progress for black athlete’s inclusion in the world of intercollegiate athletics. Today, in Division I of the NCAA black males make-up 60% of basketball players and 51% of football players and 27% of track athletes, while black females constitute 35% of basketball players and 31% of track athletes (NCAA, 1998).

Not only have African Americans come to demographically dominate basketball, football, and track in the United States, but they have also excelled when excellence is considered. Only one of the 14 gold medals won by male U.S. athletes at the Atlanta Olympic games was won by a white. Furthermore, Price (1997a) points out that 23% of players in the 1998 baseball all-star game were black. As well, in 1997 13 of the 15 individuals selected for USA Today's All-USA high school basketball team were black, and 23 out of the 25 members selected for the All-USA high school football team were black. Finally, blacks have dominated the world heavy weight boxing title since 1937 when Joe Louis became champion, interrupted only by Rocky Marciano (1952-55), Igemar Johannson (1959-60) and Jerry Cooney (1983-84).


Certain sports seem dominated by African Americans and others by Whites

While African Americans are disproportionately represented in sports such as basketball, football, track and boxing, it should be noted that they are underrepresented in activities such as lacrosse, soccer, hockey, swimming, tennis, golf, and skating. As pointed out by Price (1997a), this may be because white male athletes have, and are in the process of migrating away from activities in which they do not believe they can compete with more talented black athletes. By the same token, a disproportionate number of African American athletes, for a variety of reasons, believe that they are athletically superior to whites, and have a reasonable shot one day of becoming a professional athlete in basketball or football. Consequently, the contingencies currently favor the development of blacks and whites moving into different sports because of their beliefs held about the likelihood of present and future success. This, of course, is based on many unsubstantiated stereotypical convictions about biological advantages and disadvantages, and upon modeling of successful professional athletes who in basketball, football and track are disproportionately black. Also at the core of these sociological sport migrations might be the opportunity structure for future employment in which it is still widely believed that blacks are severely restricted. Consequently, It is not surprising that sport has become more important to black children than to white children. This is aptly captured by William Ellerbee, basketball coach of national power Simon Gratz High in Philadelphia, who believes: "Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it. Inner-city kids look at basketball as a matter of life or death" (Price, 1997a).


What reasons have been given for these demographic anomalies?

To account for the dominance of blacks in our major team sports, like Jimmy ‘the Greek" Snyder and Al Campanis, writers have invoked biological explanations. For example, in 1971 Kane wrote a controversial article that cited a number of studies which were used to support the contention that blacks are superior to whites in speed and power because of an inherited biological predisposition. The typical experimental paradigm across studies cited was to measure a constellation of anthropological, physiological, and/or performance based parameters on black and white samples and then to infer that any observed differences were racially linked.

For example, Kane cited a study by Tanner (1960) in which 137 black and white track and field athletes, weightlifters, and wrestlers who participated in the 1958 British and Commonwealth Games, and the 1960 Olympic games, were photographed and x-rayed. Contrasts were made on such variables as leg length, arm length, hip width, calf circumference, bone density and fat percentage. Results showed blacks to have longer arms and legs, narrower hips, wider bones, narrower calf muscles, and lower subcutaneous fat percentages. Kane cited a number of other studies using a similar experimental paradigm in which blacks were found to have smaller lung capacities, and greater flexibility. He also cited several growth and development studies which suggested that: (a)Ugandan infants are physically more mature at three days of age than European infants , (b) black children out-performed white children on a composite fitness test which included such items as the shuttle run, 50-yard dash, and 600-yard run, and (c) African American boys out performed white boys on pull-ups, standing broad jump, 50 yard dash, softball throw and 600-yard run walk. Kane also cited a study by anthropologist Robert Malina on children between 6 and 12 years of age which found that blacks were faster and jumped further than whites, but did not throw further. The compilation of such data led Kane to conclude, as stated by Malina, "Mechanically speaking, a black athlete with legs identical to those of a white athlete would have a lighter, shorter and trimmer mass to propel. This implies a greater power-to-total-weight ratio at any given size. Such a ratio would be advantageous in events in which the body is propelled-the sprints and jumps, for example. These require relatively short bursts of muscular power rather than a prolonged expenditure of energy" (p. 79). However, Malina also stated that this seeming advantage could be offset by the greater density of the black skeleton.

Kane then attempted to explain the poor showing of blacks in swimming by suggesting that this could very well be a function of the black’s greater bone and muscle density, smaller lung capacity, and less advantageous fat distribution. All of these factors, he argued, could decrease buoyancy, and thus make swimming more difficult. Although the argument suggests a physical and physiological limitation for blacks as competitive swimmers, Kane does interview renown Olympic and collegiate swimming coach James Councilman who conveys his belief that the paucity of black representation in the swimming world is more a function of opportunity and interest than of physical limitations.

While Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder was castigated, in part, for espousing a survival of the fittest breeding hypothesis for superiority of blacks as athletes, it is interesting that Kane proposes a similar theme throughout his article. For example, he cites then Dallas Cowboy star, and prominent black athlete, Calvin Hill who stated:

I have a theory about why so many pro stars are black. I think it boils down to the survival of the fittest. Think of what the African slaves were forced to endure in this country merely to survive. Well, black athletes are their descendants. They are the offspring of those who are physically and mentally tough enough to survive (pps. 78-79).

Kane then quotes Lee Evans, a black athlete who held the Olympic and 400-meter record:

We were bred for it. Certainly the black people who survived in the slave ships must have contained a high proportion of the strongest. Then, on the plantations, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. We were simply bred for physical qualities (p. 79).

Later on in the article, Kane returns to this theme, admitting that the "breeding hypothesis" is among the most controversial theories regarding black success in sport. Nonetheless, without citing sources, he presents data which estimates that because of the great hardships involved in slavery only one individual survived for every two condemned to it. The inference here is that the strongest survived and ultimately were the ancestors of the physically superior black athletes.

While there are many issues regarding Kane’s article that need to be addressed, one can not but wonder about the harsh reactions to Jimmy "the Greek" and Al Campanis. Although there are many good reasons to refute their Social Darwinist perspectives, it is entirely understandable why they may have thought the way they did about the success of blacks in athletics. Kane’s article was not published in a white supremacist publication, but Sports Illustrated! Both individuals were not academics, but likely to accept what seemed like plausible arguments at face value. Given the past and present demographics, the biological hypothesis is a reasonable deduction. Even some prominent black athletes thought it a viable explanation for disproportionate representation. However, as with any scientific hypothesis, reliable and valid data needs to be collated before it can be accepted or refuted. It should be noted that unlike more innocuous scientific hypotheses, this one has become politicized to the point where conclusions were often derived before adequate data were acquired, analyzed, and interpreted.


The case against the biological argument. Perhaps the strongest argument against the biological hypothesis supporting a genetic advantage for the black athlete is that the concept of "race" itself is viewed today as more of a sociological than a biological construct. In theory, for individuals to be members of the same race they should possess relatively homogenous genetic material, and be heterogeneous with respect to other homogenous groups. In his presidential address to the American Anthropological Society Washburn (1963) strongly argued against the existence of such entities, especially when limited to what we commonly know as Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid classification. He wrote that such classificatory schemes were a product of nineteenth-century thinking, and that to appreciate human variation it is much more productive to examine an individual’s culture, ancestral migratory patterns, and environmental adaptation than to target a minor factor like skin color as a racial determinant. As an example he asks whether it makes any sense to place the relatively isolated Australian Aborigine into the same group as the inhabitants of Africa just because of skin color? Further, he points out that even within groups within Africa such as the Pygmies, there are at least three different origins for people so classified. The point being that because of a variety of historical factors homogenous genetic groups are not existent in today’s world. More recently, biologist, Richard Lewontin reaffirmed Washburn’s contention in stating: "if you pick at random any two ‘blacks’ walking along the street, and analyze their 23 pairs of chromosomes, you will probably find that their genes have less in common than do the genes of one of them with a random white person" (Begley, 1995). Data from the Human Genome Diversity Project confirms these assertions by showing that inter-individual genetic variation between people in the same sociological racial grouping is much greater than between the averages contrasted across different classifications (Begley, 1995).

Operationalized to the sports world one can look at white basketball players such as 6’1" Utah Jazz guard John Stockon and 7’2" Chicago Bulls center Luc Longley and black players such as 6’0" Philadelphia 76ers guard Alan Iverson, and 7’0" New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing, and ask who appears to have more in common: the black players, the white players, or the players at the positions of guard and center? The concept that race as a biological entity is meaningless does not connote that we are all the same. Surely, human variation which provides advantages and disadvantages to people participating in different activities is a very real phenomenon. Indeed, it is clearly shown in Table 2 that certain somatotypes and physiological capabilities are associated with certain types of athletic events (Carter, 1970). As shown in bold, one observes that swimmers tend to be much lower on the endomorphic component than football players, basketball players tend to be higher on the ectomorphic component than other athletic groups, and weight lifters tend to be highest on the mesomorphic component. While variability exists across activities, it is evident and logical that at high levels of performance task demands require athletes to possess an appropriate body type. For example, football players and weightlifters need to be strong and bulky (high meso and high endo), basketball players need to be lean and tall (low endo and high ecto), while swimmers need to be strong but lean (high meso and low endo). The point, however, is that systematic variation in body configuration does not co-vary with any meaningful designation of biological race.

Table 1. Carter’s Collated Somatotype Data of High Level Athletes in Different Activities.









 San Diego State Swimmers








 Cureton's Champions








 English Channel Swimmers
















 San Diego Football Players








 U. of Iowa Football Players








 Oregon Football Players








 Football Players








 Cureton Track & Field Champs








 1960 Olympic T&F Throwers








 Track & Field Athletes








 San Diego State Basketball Pls








 U. of Iowa BB Players








 USSR BB Players








 Basketball Players








 British Empire Games Wt. Lift








 USSR Weight Lifters








 Weight Lifters








 US College "Non-Athletes"








1 Endo is associated with an emphasis on digestive viscera.


2 Meso is associated with an emphasis on muscular tissue.


3 Ecto is associated with and emphasis on nervous system tissue.


The Case of the Kenyan Runner. It is of interest that in Kane’s article allusions are made to the idea that the black athlete has a higher percentage of "fast-twitch" motor fibers than white athletes. This would give them an advantage in activities that require speed and power. This could, in theory, account for why only blacks were finalists in the 1968 Olympic 100 meter dash. But it also creates a problem in accounting for why blacks from Kenya, beginning with Kip Keino, have dominated longer distance events. Conceivably, a higher percentage of slow twitch fibers would be advantageous here since endurance, rather than power, is essential. In Kane’s article it is suggested that Keino was an exception who had a different physiological heritage than the West African blacks from which African American blacks are descended. While this may be so, it is quite interesting that even Kane acknowledges a difference in underlying heredity between West and East Africans, which actually supports Washburn’s (1963) contention that culture, migratory patterns, and environment are the primary factors that shape the genetic material which determines anatomy and physiology.

Since Keino’s world records at 3,000 and 5,000 meters in the mid-1960s and his victory over America’s best miler, Jim Ryun, in the 1968 Olympics, Kenyans and North Africans have dominated the distance events. In an attempt to explain why Kenyan runners have become the dominant force in distance running, Moore (1990) examined Kenyan culture and its physical environment. Essentially, he found that a combination of factors are responsible for their success including: (a) living at an altitude of 7,000 feet, (b) eating a diet high in complex carbohydrates, (c) being part of a community in which running is the primary means of transportation, and (d) coming from a stoic culture which reinforces competition and the suppression of pain. The result of such a profile suggests that, over time, Kenyans may have developed biological traits that would give them an advantage in the longer distances where they have been so successful. But the vigorous culture in which they live also is probably responsible for their attitude about running, and their striving to achieve success on the world stage. That Kenyans have a biological advantage over other groups of athletes coming from different parts of the world appears to be corroborated by a number of studies which show them (a) able to perform at a higher percentage of their V02 Max (e.g., 89% vs. 81% - Noakes, 1990), and (b) having quadriceps with greater capillarization, smaller muscle fibers which contain mitochondria that are closer to capillaries, and more muscle enzymes which burn fat and spare glycogen and protein (Saltin in Burfoot, 1992). Such a profile gives Kenyans what appears to be a high resistance to fatigue when compared to other groups of people.

Consequently, we now have two very different types of black athlete, those of West African descent, from which it has been alleged that most blacks in the United States are descendents, and those who come from East and North Africa. The former group are commonly linked to the power and speed events such as sprinting and high jumping, while the latter are more typically associated with events such as the mile run or marathon in which endurance and persistence are the essential factors. It is interesting to note that Burfoot (1992), after making a more modern case for the biological superiority of the black athlete in yoking achievement to physique in both sprinting and distance events, ultimately writes:

The word "black" provides little information about any one or any group. Of the 100,000 genes that determine human makeup, only one to six regulate skin color, so we should assume nothing about anyone based on skin color alone. West Africans and East Africans are both black, but in many physical ways they are more unlike each other than they are different from most whites. (p. 94).

Burfoot goes on to acknowledge that only one assumption is important when talking about Africans and athletic performance, and that is that the variety of peoples who live there "represent the fullest and most spectacular variations of humankind to be found anywhere" (p. 94). Interestingly, this theme is central to Gladwell (1997), who, once again, revives the question about why blacks dominate our most visible sports. He elaborates on this notion by citing work by Yale biologist Kenneth Kidd who took DNA samples from two Pigmy tribes in Zaire and the Central African Republic and compared them to similar samples of groups from other parts of the world. What he found was that there was more generic variation in the Pigmy samples that in all the other samples combined. In essence, all of the genetic variation observed throughout the world was contained in the Pigmy sample. Gladwell makes the point that if one can generalize from such findings, it is logical to infer that optimal athletic attributes are more likely to be found in individuals of African ancestry. This is so because greater biological variation would result in a greater number of individuals having optimal characteristics for certain types of athletic events. On the other hand, It is also likely, as he conveys, that there will be many individuals of African ancestry who have a genetic makeup that is the antithesis of what would be required for developing into a world class athlete. The point is that in the past researchers have focused on central tendencies between groups having certain phenotypic properties, and it is much more telling to examine variability in the genetic material within such cohorts.


The question of who is black. While the variability hypothesis is intriguing, it is not without problems. For one, it may be that certain groups possess greater variation in genetic material than others, but this property has not been shown to be isomorphic with skin color. As well, even if one could demonstrate such a relationship, it would be necessary to also demonstrate that this factor was causal in black athletic preeminence. To date, none of these relationships have been shown to be true.

Furthermore, in the United States, where black athletes have excelled on both the national and international level, the assumption of intra-group homogeneity is problematic since migratory patterns and intermarriage among peoples from different groupings have created a genetic admixture which is too complex to meaningfully disentangle. Price (1997b) points out that although most black Americans are descendants of slaves who emanated from western Africa, 90% have some white blood in their ancestry. An interesting example of this point is illustrated when one attempts to categorize Tiger Woods. He has been hailed by some as the first black golfer to win the Masters. But Tiger contends that he does not consider himself black, but "cablinasian," which more accurately portrays his Caucasian, Black, American Indian and Asian heritage (El Nasser, 1997). Again, from a sociological viewpoint what constitutes a black in the United States relates to whether or not an individual has any black ancestry, rather than whether his or her underlying genetics is representative of a group of people a common gene pool. Consequently, even if we were to subscribe to the variability hypothesis conveyed by Burfoot (1992) and Gladwell (1997), we would still have the problem of identifying individuals who were members of the group to which the idea applied. Simply categorizing individuals as black or white would not be enough.


Linking Genetic Attributes to Specific Athletic Abilities. Another issue that deserves further scrutiny is what to make of studies which over the years have found anthropometric and physiological differences between white and black samples? For example, what meaning should be given to findings such as summarized in Kane’s (1971) article that blacks have proportionately longer legs, narrower hips, wider calf bones, greater ratios of tendon to muscle, and relatively greater bone densities than whites? Is it reasonable to conclude that such differences, if they really exist, would give blacks an advantage in speed and power events? Indeed, is there any scientific evidence which definitively shows that such differences are the basis for observed differences in athletic performance. Price (1997b) makes the point that although such morphologic differences are interesting and suggestive, it is premature to assume that they can account for the performance differences found between the individual who breaks the world record and the individual who finishes 10th. He goes on to point out that Carl Lewis fits the perfect profile of a sprinter who is tall, long-legged, and possessing narrow hips. But during his prime he was beaten four times by Ron Brown who was shorter and stockier.

Malina (1986) also makes the important point that despite many studies which show differences in motor performance among groups classified according to racial labels, the relationship between performance differences and genetic factors have not been examined. Consequently, any differences found in performance can not be causally linked to genetic factors. Thus, uncertainty remains whether differences in performance, or for that matter differences in physical and physiological attributes, are primarily a function of genetics, environment or a combination of the two.

It is also interesting to note that Saltin (Burfoot, 1992) compared Kenyan and Swedish runners and found a number of small but important physiological differences which could give Kenyans an advantage in endurance events. He suggested that environment and training could account for observed disparities in muscle profiles and general energy utilization. Specifically, he conveyed that years of walking and running could lead to the type of physiological adaptations that make energy expenditures more economical. He also noted that Nordic skiers and orienteers who engage in activities having similar demands also have similar muscle physiology. Indeed, research has demonstrated that hill running over as short as a twelve week training program can increase running efficiency by as much as 3%

Perhaps, in the end, Price (1997b) puts it best in stating:

Given the logistical difficulty of testing large groups of top athletes under laboratory conditions, and the complexity held within the 100,000 genes that shape a person’s characteristics, the only safe conclusion is this: Sports’ nature-versus-nurture debate is a long way from being resolved.


The case against the breeding hypothesis. One of the ideas that was conveyed by Jimmy the Greek Snyder, and is mentioned by Kane as being controversial, is the notion that slavery weeded out the weak. The survivors then bred amongst themselves to produce a class of physically superior specimens. Following this hypothesis, Kane infers, that it is by this process by which today’s black athletes have gained a biological advantage.

While seemingly logical as an hypothesis the contention is really without merit for several reasons. First, as previously indicated, blacks did not reproduce as though they were a closed biological system. There is substantial evidence that slaves bore offspring who were interracial (Stern, 1954). A tradition of interracial reproduction in the United States has continued to the present, and would cast considerable doubt on the assertion that slaves and their descendents represented some type of "pure stock." A second argument against the breeding hypothesis is proposed by Edwards (1972) who argues that the Darwinian notion of "survival of the fittest" is less applicable to humans than other forms of animal life since intellect can often overcome physical limitations. He contends that just as some slaves may have survived because of their physical prowess, others survived because of their intellect and capacity to overcome the system.

On a final note Kane (1971) infers that black athletes differ from white athletes on the psychological variable of anxiety control. He states:

What heritage or heredity brought the black athlete this ability to keep out tension, no one knows. Yet, prior to the big day the black athlete, as a rule, can go through his daily motions or his sleep period normally, and when the big moment comes he can react normally. In white athletes the conscious mind often takes over and the tension mounts (p. 76).

But Cashmore () points out that although such a description may have "... a common-sense authenticity about it" (p. 87), black athletes actually work at presenting an image of coolness. He goes on to argue that blacks are probably more concerned about their performances than whites since athletics is normally less recreational for them, more important for acquiring status in the community, and more typically viewed as a career path. Cashmore believes that Kane "...mistook impression management for deep psychological profiles" (p. 87) in his psychological portrayal of the black athlete. Carlston (1986) seemingly would support Cashmore’s analysis as he so eloquently pointed out that style and expressiveness are critical ingredients of basketball performance of blacks in the inner city. Showing coolness under pressure would be part of such a persona, despite the high psychological risks at stake within playground competitions. Furthermore, a recent pole by Sports Illustrated also supports Cashmore’s contention regarding greater career aspirations in athletics for blacks than whites. When middle school and high school students were asked: "Realistically, what could you become when you grow up?" 57% of blacks said Pro Athlete, while only 41% of whites did so (Price, 1997a). The bottom line here is that there is really no good empirical evidence to support Kane’s contention, and more interesting evidence suggests that style is being confused with the stereotype of blacks being "happy go lucky" in pressure situations.


The Environmental Argument

If the success of black athletes can not be attributed to unique physical and physiological differences that are associated with race, then an alternative explanation might be found in the environment. This is the case that Edwards (1973) has made over the years with the basic contention being that because of the lack of opportunities resulting from discrimination in other more mainstream areas, blacks have disproportionately pursued sport as an area in which success is possible. Marshalling an extraordinary amount of energy and devoting hours on end to becoming proficient, they have come to dominate basketball, football, boxing, and track and field. This, in turn, begins a cycle in which young blacks who perceive limited opportunities in other areas model individuals, like themselves, who have achieved social and financial success (Bledsoe, 1973).

Interestingly, this profile of devoting a vast amount of time and energy to practice over long durations dovetails nicely with the work by Ericsson and his colleagues (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer,1993; Ericsson, & Charness, 1994) which shows that expert performance is predominantly mediated by acquired complex perceptual-motor skills and physiological adaptations rather than innate abilities. In essence, Ericsson et al. concluded that across a wide range of endeavors, including athletics, to reach world class performance standards individuals must start young, and practice over a period of at least 10 years, accumulating a minimum of 10,000 hours! Furthermore, they suggest that the essential ingredient in acquiring so much practice time is motivation and reinforcement. Interestingly, these observations fit nicely with the vast number of anecdotal reports describing black inner city youth devoting hours on end to practicing and playing basketball (e.g., Axthelm, 1970; Hoop Dreams, 1994). Furthermore, Ericsson and colleagues make the important point that when an activity is started at a young age and pursued intensely during the course of biological development anatomical structure and physiological functioning tends to conform to the stresses placed upon the body. Consequently, the picture that is painted by their analysis is that not only would black youth become quite expert at the activities for which they are demographically over-represented, but observed physical differences in anatomy and physiology, previously ascribed to underlying genetic factors, could easily be accounted for by adaptation to task demands.

Perhaps, one of the most astute analyses of black and white differences in performance is by Carlton (1986) who pointed out that while most writers acknowledge systematic differences in basketball performance between blacks and whites on such things as jumping, speed, and reaction time, detailed analysis of causal mechanisms is typically lacking. Carlton makes the important point that many of the observed physical differences can be attributed to stylistic differences in how inner city (i. e., African -American), and suburban (i. e., White) children learn to play the game. His central thesis is that inner city children learn to play on playgrounds that are over-crowded, while suburban youth hone their skills on underutilized courts.

This results in inner city youth learning to play in the midst of competition. Some of the consequences of this are that skills are tailored to specific game situations. For example, one must learn to shoot with deception or one’s shot will be blocked. Passes must be circuitous with appropriate deception, or they will be intercepted. As well, winning means staying on the court, and losing often results in having to wait a substantial time until one's turn to play comes again. This is so unless a losing player demonstrates skills which a new team wishes to possess. Consequently, playing with flare is rewarded. The spectacular dunk or blocked shot in a previous game can be rewarded by that player being selected to play in a subsequent game despite his team having lost. Gaining a "rep" on the inner city playgrounds can insure an individual significant playing time despite the large numbers of individuals vying for a chance to participate in a game. Learning to play in the midst of competition also promotes a certain physicality in which bumps, and hacks are part of the game since fouls are typically called by players rather than officials. Rebounding is also essential to staying on the court. Furthermore, during half court games, defensive players typically can rebound and score without first taking the ball behind the foul line, making rebounding critical to success.

Ultimately, these conditions produce the best players, since such individuals get the most playing time to develop their skills, game savvy, and confidence. As well, the demands of such competitive play over a long period of time, would lead to physical adaptations described by Ericsson and Charness (1994) and typically attributed to unique racial inheritance. For example, it is easily deduced that jumping ability and concomitant physical support structures and mechanisms would be developed to a high level under the game conditions found in the inner city because of the fortuitous, but long-term, conditioning that ensues for all players engaged in this style of play.

In contrast, the suburban player typically learns the game on underutilized facilities. This means that often the individual practices alone, and develops skills outside of a game context. Consequently, shooting skills may be sharply honed, but be difficult to execute in the presence of defensive players. As well, unlike in the inner city where courts are crowded, in suburbia players need to be rounded-up just to have a game. This often entails players coercing individuals to play who are normally less skillful, and less interested in participating. Carlston suggests that to keep such individuals happy, more skillful players must get less skilled players involved, which often means sacrificing opportunities that better players may have to dominate play and enhance their own skills. As well, physical contact must be kept to a minimum to appease recruits. Such a dynamic tends to promote mediocre play in which the intent is to keep players happy and involved rather than to advance excellence or promote the development of dramatic "moves".

These stylistic differences seemingly have not been studied in much detail, but the arguments provided by Carlston’s analysis can adequately explain many of the differences between black and white basketball players heretofore attributed to innate factors. As suggested, these differences may actually be cultural rather than racial. Indeed, in 1996 Brent Barry became the first white to win the NBA’s slam-dunk contest. In a subsequent interview, he mentioned that although he grew-up in an upper-middle class neighborhood, he took week-end trips to inner-city Oakland in order to find a game (Price, 1997a). He said that if he went to his high school to play on weekends it would be locked up, but he knew that if he went downtown garbage cans would be prying the doors of the gymnasium open and games would be ongoing. Presumably, this is where he developed the skills and style which ultimately resulted in winning a contest heretofore reserved for inner city black players.

More recently, Wideman (2001), writing about how closely playground basketball was intertwined with cultural expression in the inner city neighborhood of his youth states:

Playground hoop is partially a response to the mainstream's long, determined habit of stipulating blackness as inferiority, as a category for discarding people, letting people crash and burn, keeping them outsiders. And if that's what race means out there in the mainstream, and it surely does appear to mean all that from the point of view of an insider, here within the cage where playground ball is contested, then fuck it. Forget it. Let's start here. Keep it here. In the house. Do our thing. Enjoy the shit out of it. God blesses the child who got his own (p. 173).

Wideman, in contrast to those who devalue playground ball as distracting inner city youth from more important objectives, infers that it is a misunderstood form of cultural expression and protest by those who are proud and disenfranchised in mainstream America. In essense, Wideman's analysis rerinforces the notion that within the inner city African-American community playground ball is a means through which extraordinary creative energy is released. He cogently makes the case that the game itself is not simply what it appears to be to the untrained eye, but a serious art form which is deeply appreciated by those engaged in it as well as those who can see below its facade. In contrast to those who may devalue the activity as a frivolous past time, Wideman clearly supports the contention that playground ball was critical to his community, and to his personal developmental as an African-American growing up in a racist society. Besides the carthartic release resulting from physical exertion and the day to day achievements of his contemporaries, icon status was awarded to those who played best and were stylistically unique. Aswell, oral histories were passed down from generation to generation describing the exploits of playground legends.

Another example of how environmental factors can dispel myths about alleged inherent racial capabilities is that of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim club (Hoose, 1990). As previously mentioned, a myth has existed that blacks lack buoyancy because of their increased muscle and bone density. Thus, it has been inferred that they would not be successful as competitive swimmers. Nonetheless, one must also acknowledge that swimming facilities have been relatively scarce in black neighborhoods , and historically whites have been reluctant to share their swimming pools with them. Furthermore, in contrast to money sports such as basketball and football, there is little financial incentive for those who make it to the top. Consequently, there has been little interest in, or tradition of African-Americans excelling in swimming.

However, an anomaly has been the program run by Jim Ellis, who has "... turned swimming into a normal experience for black kids in the city of Philadelphia" (Hoose 1990, p. 49). Jim is a junior high math teacher with a passion for teaching the sport to inner city kids. He is on a mission to produce Olympic caliber swimmers and to show the fallacy of the stereotype which portrays blacks as "sinkers." In 1990, three of the 175 swimmers in the club were ranked in the top six nationally in their events, and eight others were regionally ranked in the top ten. As well, in 1988, a boys ten and under relay team set a national record. Michael Norment, then a 14 year old, went on to have a highly successful swimming career at the University of Georgia (Schlabach, 1997), while Jason Webb, who was 15, excelled at the University of Virginia (Price, 1997a). While Ellis has not produced an Olympian yet, the success of his program is evident. Once again the formula for success appears to be years of intense practice driven by an athlete’s interest to excel. From this example, one might surmise that from a biological point of view being black or white has little to do with success in swimming. It is opportunity, and interest driven by a supportive subculture that makes the difference. As a greater number of programs such as Ellis’ develop black swimmers, it is more than likely an African Americans will be a presence on U.S. Olympic swimming teams.

But just as supportive conditions can foster athletic prowess, non-supportive ones can discourage individuals who may be quite capable from even trying. Price (1997a) claims that because the black athlete has experienced so much success in basketball, football, and track the white athlete is becoming less interested in these activities and pursuing alternatives such as soccer, ice hockey, mountain biking and wall climbing. Price cites data from a Sports Illustrated poll conducted in 1990 supporting these trends showing for instance: (a) 40% of black high school students claimed to participate in basketball, while only 15% of whites said that they did, and (b) 21% of black students said that they played football while only 15% of whites acknowledged doing so. Furthermore, from NCAA figures over the period 1984-1990, there has been a decline in the number of white freshmen on scholarship. In basketball there was an 11% drop while in football it was 22%.

Additional data from the Sports Illustrated poll (Price, 1997a) shows that 34% of white male middle school and high school students did not believe that they can compete with African Americans in basketball or football. On the other hand 53% of black students believed that they were superior to whites in basketball and football. These demographic and attitudinal data seem to suggest that a cycle is in progress in which white males have begun to believe the stereotype of the superiority of the black athlete, and in so doing have devalued their own potential to participate in sports dominated by African Americans. Interestingly, in the Sports Illustrated poll it was found that whites identified 33 activities in which they engaged while blacks only identified 20. Furthermore, 46% of whites indicated that their reason for branching out was that they felt they could make breakthroughs in less traditional sports while it was less likely for them to do so in traditional team sports.

If the basis for blacks dominating team sports in the United States is not based on inherent biological advantages, as previously argued, then the explanation for "white flight" into other areas is probably environmental. As described by Carlston’s (1986) theory of stylistic differences in basketball, one could hypothesize that many of the differences observed in children's sport's preferences depends upon how games are learned, and the social support systems which reinforce or dissuade involvement. In the words of William Ellerbee, basketball coach at national powerhouse Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, "Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it. Inner city kids look at basketball as a matter of life and death" (Price, 1997a). Thus, one might speculate that black inner city kids, whose stature in their community is defined by their physical prowess (Hoberman, 1997) start earlier in life, practice more hours, experience greater activity specific developmental changes, and possess greater self-efficacy in sports such as basketball, football and track than white youth. On the other hand, suburban white children view sport involvement more as an adjunct to other activities in which they engage than one of life’s central themes. Because of economic advantages and social reinforcement, these kids are directed into many different sorts of sport related and non-related activities, rather than into just a few team sports.

On a final note, little, if anything, has been said about cultural factors which reinforce or inhibit participation by females in sport. This topic will be covered more fully in the chapter devoted to women in sport. Nonetheless, it is interesting to observe that even when biological and environmental conditions are favorable for producing elite athletes in a particular activity, culture may intervene to inhibit such development. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is from Kenya, where males have dominated distance running on the international level since Kip Keino came to the fore during the 1968 Olympics. In examining best times across a variety of running events from 800 meters through the marathon, 27 Kenyan men can be found to hold top 10 times. For the same, or closely similar events, only one Kenyan woman is a top ten finisher, Rose Cheruiyot at 5000 Meters. Why should this be considering that biological and environmental conditions are recognized in Kenya as being optimal for producing distance runners?

As Villarosa (1992) writes, Kenyan "...tradition has swallowed up women runners as quickly as it has spit out male superstars" (p. 98). As one examines Kenyan culture, it can be clearly observed that although girls run with the boys while growing up, women are ultimately expected to play traditional roles as mothers and housewives, and have been discouraged from pursuing running careers that take them away from home. Seiler (1997) further points out, in comparing the relative successes of male and female runners in Kenya, that Kenya’s birth rate, up until a few years ago, was approximately five times that of West Germany. Accordingly, he hypothesizes that prolific child rearing contributes to the population of male runners, but also restricts women’s lives, and their aspirations to train and compete. Villarosa (1992) believes that things are changing in Kenya, and that the successes of some of its younger female runners has encouraged young girls "...not to be intimidated by their background and culture" (p. 101). Given the favorable climate, altitude, diet, and biological heritage of Kenyan females, it seems that cultural disincentives, and beliefs about male and female roles, have inhibited them from performing at world class levels in large numbers.

Seemingly, peoples beliefs about how they are supposed to behave, cultural mores, historical traditions, and associated reinforcement have had a powerful impact on athletic achievement or underachievement. These variables are indifferent to such things as skin color, gender, class, religion, or any other personal attribute. Furthermore, as presented, the environmental argument is parsimonious in that it infers that given a viable biological platform, individuals who are motivated to practice for long periods of time, starting at an early age, are able to hone skills and acquire optimal physiological mechanisms for performing at elite levels. From this perspective, skin color is only important in this equation to the extent that it affiliates one with a culture that supports or opposes athletic achievement.



From these observations the following conclusions seem warranted. First, a great deal of misinformation exists about race and sport, and the assertions made by people like Al Campanis and Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder about black capabilities in a variety of endeavors are more understandable in light of information found in the general media. Although their statements may have been hurtful to many, neither of these individuals were racists. They simply conveyed beliefs and stereotypes about blacks and whites that have been perpetuated in newspapers and magazines, and have gone virtually challenged until the last few years.

Second, it has become clear that race as a biological entity is a meaningless concept. Today, physical anthropologists and geneticists believe that there is as much genetic variability within what were once traditionally believed to be racial groups, as between them. Divergence of what once may have been more homogeneous grouping came about as a result of migrations and interbreeding of populations over thousands of years. Consequently, the concept of race has become meaningful only as a broad sociological concept. This is not to say that genetic makeup is unimportant as a basis for athletic excellence. This also does not infer that groups of people distributed around the world do not have advantages in certain athletic endeavors, as environment, culture, and heredity may be advantageous, in certain instances, for producing individuals with optimal height, weight, muscle structure, and temperament for excelling in a particular activity (e.g., Kenyans and distance running or Norwegians and cross-country skiing). The point, however, is that such groupings do not represent what is traditionally believed to be racial groups.

Third, it can be argued that even when certain groups of people scattered around the world do have predisposing advantages for excelling in particular activities, individuals who reach world class levels represent the extremes within group distributions rather than its central tendency. This probably distorts general perceptions of a group's attributes and makes differences appear greater than they actually are. Michael Jordan is clearly an anomaly. To portray him as somehow reflective of blacks coming from western North Carolina is absurd, as this group has more in common with typical whites living in western North Carolina than they do with Michael Jordan.

Finally, the observation that world class performers devote years of time to practicing intensely must be underscored. Not only do such individuals acquire skills and capabilities that are necessary for excellence, but by starting young, they also shape their bodies and physiology to the demands of the activities pursued. The fact that African-Americans males have used athletic prowess in sports such as basketball, track, football, and boxing as a rite of passage is consistent with the idea that excellence comes from many years of hard work rather than from a unique chromosome or two. On the other hand, flight away from these activities by white males does not demonstrate genetic shortcomings, but a lack of commitment to doing those things necessary to excel. Of course, success by one group and lack of it by another leads to all kinds of beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority that have no basis in fact, but, nevertheless, mediate the sorts of behavior that maintains the status quo.

Equity Issues

Despite continued interest in questions relating to race and performance, an area which has received greater attention over the past few years concerns equity in sports. At first this may seem like a strange issue considering the demographics of our major athletic activities. As previously reported, African-American males are vastly over represented in collegiate basketball, football, and track. Additionally, they are over-represented in professional basketball, football, track, boxing, and to a lesser degree, baseball. Furthermore, African-American females are disproportionally represented in relation to their population size in collegiate basketball and track (Siegel, 1994). The WNBA also has a disproporianally large representation of African-American females. But, such disproportionality in select sports also makes one wonder about under- representation of black athletes in a much wider variety of other sports including: hockey, golf, tennis, swimming, skiing, volleyball, and canoeing?

As well, a second major equity issue concerns control in sports. While African-Americans dominate as players in our revenue producing activities, they are vastly under-represented in positions of ownership, management and coaching. Some have presented the picture of a "plantation system" in athletics in which blacks perform on the playing fields for whites who control the action. Interestingly recent information indicates that colleges are also not doing a particularly good job of hiring black administrators and coaches (Lapchick and Matthews, 1998; 1999). Recently this issue has received greater attention, and suggestions have been presented for how demographics might be changed (e.g., ESPN, 1998).

A third issue that has been studied over the years relates to what has become known as "stacking." This phenomenon relates to the likelihood of white and black players being disproportionately represented in certain playing positions such as pitcher and outfielder in baseball or quarterback and cornerback in football. Various hypotheses have been advanced for the observation that whites are more likely to be found in positions of centrality while blacks tend to occupy more peripheral roles. Whether institutional racism is responsible for the distribution of players of different races across positions or some other dynamic will be explored.

A final question that touches on equity is that of the racial demography of fans who attend athletic events. With player salaries at unprecedented levels, ticket prices have risen accordingly. As well, owners of teams have changed the nature of playing venues creating skyboxes and other types of luxury viewing areas which are affordable only to the well-off. These developments have led to the creation of a well-to-do fan base. Since race and income are related in the United States, this has also resulted in the strange situation of a predominantly white audience viewing predominantly black athletes competing against one another. The question of whether or not this represents a larger problem will be discussed.


Playing Opportunities. Perhaps the area which has provided the greatest opportunities for minorities in sport is in playing positions. As conveyed in Chapter 2, sport has historically provided a means through which individuals lower on the socioeconomic ladder were able to achieve recognition and wealth when other avenues were closed off to them. Whether foreclosure in other areas was due to a lack of knowledge, expertise, or just blatant discrimination, sport provided greater opportunities by allowing merit to weigh more heavily into who got to do what. Of course, this is not to imply that sport was unscathed by the discriminatory practices characteristic of the larger society. Indeed, although blacks were involved in boxing and track and field earlier in the century, it was not really until the latter half of the 20th Century that they were allowed to participate in mainstream professional sports. From the historic 1947 season when Jackie Robinson was the first black to play in an heretofore all white professional league through the present, ability has progressively become the determining factors in player demographics.

Recent data from the 1997-98 season shows that blacks made up 77% of NBA players, 65% of NFL players, and 15% of MLB players (Lapchick, & Mathews, 1999). As well in 1997, black males made up 60% of basketball players and 51% of football players on NCAA Division 1 teams (Lapchick, & Mathews, 1999), while their female cohorts made up 35% of basketball players in Division 1 (NCAA, 1998).

However, when one examines sports other than basketball, football, baseball, boxing and track and field the presence of black athletes decreases dramatically. With the exception of Tiger Woods it is difficult to name another prominent black golfer. In tennis the names Venus Williams and Serena Williams identify two prominent players who happen to be black, but it is not evident who a third might be. In sports such as soccer, hockey, tennis, golf, swimming, lacrosse, skiing, and skating few blacks are to be found.

Clearly, such dramatically different percentages of blacks and whites engaged in various sports are not random events. As noted earlier, it appears that blacks concentrate on sports in which future economic incentives exist (e.g., basketball and football), and in which exclusive training facilities, equipment, and personalized coaching is not necessary during the developmental years. On the other hand, whites tend to gravitate toward individual sports in which developmental expenses are relatively high. As well, they tend to engage in team sports in which future employment as professionals is minimal. Seemingly, economics is partially responsible for these patterns, as is discrimination. As well, once begun, it is conceivable that role modeling and culture play a part in filtering persons coming from different backgrounds into particular activities.

Perhaps all that can be said about these tendencies from an equity point of view is that both blacks and whites do not avail themselves of all sports opportunities existent in the United States today. Ultimately this may have implications for such things as taking advantage of the full menu of college athletic scholarships offered across sports (Siegel, 1994), or future playing careers as professional athletes.


Ownership. In professional sports major decisions about a player’s plight are made by owners. Within league constraints (e.g., salary cap guidelines) they determine salaries and bonuses, selection of coaches, who gets traded, and whether a franchise stays or remains in a specific location. As conveyed by Lapchick & Mathews (1998), normally a team is owned by a group of investors rather than by a single individual. The group then designates a chief executive officer, normally a majority investor, from their ranks who takes on the principal responsibilities for running the team on a day to day basis. From their most recent analysis Lapchick & Mathews (1999) report that there were no black majority owners in the NBA, WNBA, NFL, or MLB. However, there were a number of limited partners in these leagues who are black. Magic Johnson, former NBA great, has a limited partnership with the Los Angeles Lakers. As well, Edward and Bettiann Garder have a part ownership in the Chicago Bulls. Henry Aaron (i. e., home run record holder) and Rubye Lucas hold stock in the Atlanta Braves, while Louis Smith is a partner with the Kansas City Royals, and P. J. Benton is a part owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In the NFL William Simms is a partner with the Carolina Panthers, and Deron Cherry with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Considering the large percentage of black players in these leagues it does seem rather strange that so few blacks hold ownership shares in franchises, and that no blacks serve in the roll of chief executive officer. In a sense, though, this parallels the situation in corporate America in which none of the one hundred largest corporations in America has a black chief executive officer (Chenault, 1997). Consequently, the racial imbalance on the ownership end may better reflect the larger demographic imbalance in corporate America than it does any unique aspect of the sport’s world.

Traditionally, teams were owned by wealthy whites who made their money in other endeavors, and ultimately passed them down to their progeny, who sold them to other wealthy individuals, or to corporations. That virtually all of the individuals engaged in these transactions over the years just happened to be white is magnified somewhat because of the visibility of sports, and to the dominance of the black athlete today. But, one also must realize that black ownership is not just a matter of distributing franchises in proportion to national demographics. It takes money, and lots of it to buy a team. Wealth is not distributed according to demographics, and an examination of Forbes Wealthiest 400 individuals in America in 1997 shows only one African-American on the list, Opra Winfrey. Consequently, the racial imbalance in ownership seemingly is part of a wider issue relating to distribution of wealth.

On the other hand the attraction to owning a professional team might not be as great as it might seem vis a vis opportunities in other business endeavors. As pointed out by Powell (1996) the entry fee for owning a professional team is in the neighborhood of $150 million dollars. There are few individuals, black or white, who have that kind of money to invest, especially when the payback is not great and the potential for aggravation is. Bill Cosby, mentioned as a potential team owner over the years, conveyed that he really has little interest in dealing with immature athletes, their agents, or a media which is constantly second guessing management (Powell, 1996).

Yet, the possibility of majority ownership by blacks seems to be in sight. Currently, the sale of the Cleveland Browns is being negotiated, and a number of African American principles are in the running. These include Bill Cosby who is aligned with cable TV entrepreneur, Charles Dolan, while former NFL players Paul Warfield and Calvin Hill have formed an alliance with New York real estate developer, Howard Milstein (Powell, 1998). While the wisdom of such an investment may be questionable from an economic point of view, the challenge and symbolic importance of breaking the ownership barrier, over 50 years after Jackie Robinson entered baseball, are most probably driving blacks with money to consummate a deal.


Management. A number of other positions of authority exist in professional sports and include persons holding such titles as Vice President, Senior Administrators, Director of Public Relations, Director of Community Relations, and Chief Financial Officer. From data provided by Lapchick and Mathews (1999), Table 2 collates the percentage of blacks holding these positions in the NBA, NFL and MLB during 1997-1998. As well, the percentage of senior administrators (excluding secretaries, administrative assistants, staff assistants, and receptionists) who hold front office positions is also included. These data really show no surprises in that the front office is more reflective of offices in other industries, rather than of the workers on the plant floor, or players on the field. The only exception appears to be Director of Community Relations. Lapchick and Mathews attribute the higher percentage of of African Americans in this position to the fact that most teams operate in communities in which a high percentage of blacks live, and consequently it is advantageous to have a black person serving in this role.

Table 2. Percentage of Black Athletics Administrators in Professional Sports: 1997-1998.

Position NBA NFL MLB

Vice President




 Senior Administrators (Title of director, coordinator, or manager)




 Director of Public Relations




 Director of Community Relations




 Chief Financial Officer





Coaches. From a management perspective, the individual closest to the player is the coach. In this position one might expect to find a higher percentage of blacks than in the front office. This may be anticipated since coaches typically are former players, and with a higher percentage of African-American athletes who retire from sport, a larger pool of candidates for coaching positions would evolve. Table 3 shows the percentage of head and assistant coaches in the NBA, NFL and MLB during 1997-1998. As seen, the NBA led the group in both categories of head and assistant coaches. Furthermore, if a route to a head coaching position comes from first being an assistant coach, it appears that the number of head positions held by blacks should increase in the future for all but the WNBA.

Table 3. Percentage of Black Head Coaches, Managers, and Assistant Coaches in Professional Sports: 1997-1998.


Head Coach/Manager






 Assistant Coaches/Managers







Demographics of Administration in College Sports. In college sports the analogous position to team owner is that of athletic director. Like their counterparts in the professional arena, athletic directors play a major role in hiring personnel including coaches, trainers, fund raisers, and sports information directors. For 1997-1998, in Division 1, 3.2% of athletic directors were black (Lapchick and Mathews, 1999). Interestingly, for 1996-97, the last year for which data were available (NCAA, 1998), 23.5% of student athletes in Division 1 were black (black males = 29.5% of male athletes, black females = 14.2% of female athletes). Consequently, the pattern found in professional sport of a disproportionate number of blacks playing on teams controlled by whites appears to be similar, but somewhat smaller in magnitude in the collegiate ranks. Table 4 below shows a sample of the percentage of blacks holding other administrative positions in Division 1 athletics programs (NCAA, 1998).

Table 4. Athletics Administrative Staff: 1997-1998*

Position % Black

Athletic Director



Associate Athletic Director



Assistant Director of Athletics



Senior Woman Administrator




Academic Counselor




Business Manager


 Development - Fund Raiser


 Facility Manager


 Marketing Manager


 Sports Information Director


 Head Trainer


*Historically Black Institutions Excluded



Demographics of Coaching. To parallel the data on coaching presented for professional sports, Table 5 presents comparable data for Division 1 college teams during 1997-1998 (NCAA, 1998). As seen, the percentages tend to parallel those in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, in order. In addition, the percentages of baseball coaches are strikingly lower than their professional counterparts. As well, the percentage of head coaches of woman's collegiate basket teams is lower than found in the WNBA, while the percentage of assistant coaches is similar. With the exception of baseball, it appears that we might expect to see more black head coaches in the future if the route to becoming a head coach is via being an assistant first.

Table 5. Percentage of Black Head and Assistant Coaches in Division 1 Men’s Basketball, Football, and Baseball, and Woman's Basketball: 1997-1998*


Basketball Football Baseball Woman's BB

Head Coach/Manager



 < 1.0


 Assistant Coaches/Managers





*Historically Black Institutions Excluded

From the data presented on professional and collegiate sports it is evident that a gap exists between opportunities for African Americans as players and opportunities for them as administrators and coaches. Seemingly, racial discrimination played a part in not only precluding blacks from playing earlier in the century, but also from working for teams in other capacities. Today, while the numbers would suggest that blacks are no longer discriminated against as players, one might ponder why there are not more who are owners, athletic directors, head coaches, and managers?

As a response, one could make the argument that the abilities and skills necessary to succeed as players are not the same as those necessary to succeed in areas related to the organizational and administrative aspects of sport. Thus, a large playing population of blacks does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that there should be a greater percentage of blacks in other sports roles. Assuming that most positions in professional and sport organizations require a college or graduate degree, it might be more meaningful to assess the demographics of these positions by looking at the population of individuals holding such degrees, than to assessing them in relation to the population of athletes who excel on the courts and playing fields. As a rough estimate, data reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education (1998) showed that blacks represented 9.5% of all students enrolled in colleges and 7.2% of those in graduate programs. When these figures are used to assess employment patterns in professional and college sports organizations the demographics do not appear to be disproportionately biased in any systematic fashion. In the final analysis, as in other endeavors, the route towards increased representation in professional occupations, among which the many non-playing sport positions should be included, comes with educational attainment. This represents a broader issue in society, but one that is magnified by the strange disproportionality of players to administrators and coaches in our major professional and collegiate athletic programs.



Stacking relates to the phenomenon of finding a non-random distribution of whites and blacks in certain playing positions. For example, in baseball, pitchers and catchers have tended to be disproportionately white, while outfielders have tended to be black (Rosenblatt, 1967). In football quarterback is typically a position held by whites, while wide-receiver and running back are ones held by blacks (Jones, Leonard II, Schmitt, Randall, & Tolone, 1987). Historically, in basketball, the positions of center and guard were disproportionately held by whites, while forward was identified as a black position (these patterns have been eliminated as participation rates by blacks have increased; Berghorn, Yetman, & Hanna, 1988).

A number of explanations have been advanced to account for this phenomenon. Using ideas proposed by Blalock (1962) and Grusky (1963) Loy and McElvogue (1970) argued that the degree to which a position was involved with social interaction, and the degree to which it was central in a group would be directly related to racial segregation on a sports team. Their analyses of baseball (in which catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second base and third base were identified as central), and football (in which quarterback, center, offensive guard, and linebacker were identified as central) were consistent with their contention. Edwards (1973), however, argued that the centrality theme was less about simple spatial location than it was about the degree of control and leadership associated with a position. Consequently, pitchers and catchers or quarterbacks and centers are not only in the center of coordinating game activities, but they exert greater control over what happens in terms of action and outcome. Coupled with stereotypical beliefs about race related cognitive and physical capabilities (e. g., Williams and Youssef, 1975; Hoberman, 1997), the idea that whites are more suitable for positions requiring greater thinking and decision making, and blacks are better adapted for positions requiring greater physical prowess is a short leap. Interestingly, such beliefs about racial differences transcend our borders and are found as well in England (Lashley, 1989). Hoberman (1997) makes the case that the creation and maintenance of such a belief structure was important to colonial psychology because it provided a justification for white male authority. Today, it is used to provide a basis for separation between playing, administrative, ownership positions in sports.

Such ideas would suggest that white and black players are, in some fashion, channeled into positions which match stereotypes by persons in authority (i. e., coaches, owners). To support such a contention, data would be required which demonstrated that at earlier stages of participation blacks and whites are proportionately distributed across playing positions, and as they move up the athletic pyramid, they tend to be distributed disproportionately into certain playing positions. One earlier study by Eitzen and Sanford (1975) found that for 387 professional football players that a shift from central to non-central positions had occurred for blacks as they moved from high school and college to the professional ranks. Whether such a phenomenon is a result of actively channeling players of different races into certain roles, or whether players opt for these roles as they ascend the athletic pyramid was not ascertained by this study. Perhaps, both mechanisms are responsible. Olsen (1968), for example, conveys the anecdote of Gene Washington, a black who played quarterback at Stanford during his first two years, and then switched to flanker in his junior year. He, not his coaches, requested the change reasoning that a black had little chance to make it in the NFL as a quarterback unless he was outstanding. So he opted for the more peripheral role in which he thought he had a chance to play professionally.

An alternative to the channeling hypothesis was proposed by McPherson (1975). He argued that instead of black youth being channeled into certain positions by coaches, they merely modeled their athletic heroes, and consequently played similar positions in their own athletic careers. Because the first positions played by blacks in baseball were in the outfield, and in football they were in the offensive and defensive backfield, as well as on the defensive line, subsequent black players followed in their model's footsteps, perpetuating the cycle. Inferred is the idea that channeling may have once been an explanation for disproportionality in playing roles, but now disproportionality can be better explained by modeling. Some evidence supports this interpretation. For example, Brower (cited in Eitzen and Sage, 1986, p. 276) asked a sample of 23 white and 20 black high school football players which athletes they most admired, and which positions they preferred to play if they were able. Seventy percent of the blacks choose only black role models while whites chose role models irrespective of race. As well, black athletes also preferred to play at the non-central positions which were at the time typically black positions. More recently, Price (1997a) reported that black and white kids were asked to identify their athletic role models. Interestingly, 7 out of 10 athletes named were black, and he inferred that black and white kids were color-blind in selecting names. While the question was not asked regarding which playing positions kids wished to play, the article infers from various anecdotes that black kids wished to follow in the footsteps of black stars.

Today, many have the impression that stacking is no longer an issue since blacks have become such a dominant force in our three major professional sport. Yet, the 1997 Racial Report Card (Lapchick and Mathews, 1999) tells a different story. Table 6 clearly shows that in the NFL, although 65% of the players are black, they are still disproportionately found on offense at the running back and wide receiver positions and on defense as cornerbacks and as safeties. Table 7 also indicates that in baseball stacking still seems to be a factor. Whereas blacks represent 15% of players, they are over-represented in the outfield and underrepresented in the positions of central control, pitcher and catcher.

Table 6. Stacking in the NFL: 1998



 % of Blacks


Running Back




Wide Receiver



















 % of Blacks










Defensive End








Table 7. Stacking in the MLB: 1997



% Blacks


Out Field




























Although the phenomenon of stacking is interesting from a sociological viewpoint because it provides a window into historical and more modern forms of racism in sport, it also has practical implications for players. The argument has been made that positions disproportionately occupied by blacks typically require greater speed, power, and reactive capabilities. These assets are often the first to decline as an athlete ages. In an analysis of playing longevity in the NFL Eitzen and Sage (1986) found that in 1975, only 4.1 percent of players listed in the Football Register in the positions - defensive back, running back, and wide receiver (predominantly black positions) were in the league for 10 or more years, while 14.8 percent of quarterbacks, centers, and offensive guards (predominantly white positions) played for 10 or more years. In a more recent study, Best (1987) concluded that players occupying 75% of positions typically held by blacks had careers that were shorter than 75% of positions typically held by whites. His analysis concluded that the median duration of careers for blacks in the NFL was about 3 years, while for whites it was approximately 4 years. Though not dramatically different, this could amount to a 25% difference in career earnings as well as long term differences in pension benefits which are a function of longevity in the league.

A second aspect of stacking is post playing career opportunities as coaches and managers. A number of studies suggest that coaches and managers in baseball (Grusky, 1963; Scully, 1974; Leonard II, Ostrosky, & Huchendorf, 1990), football (Massengale, & Farrington, 1977), and basketball (Chu, & Segrave, 1980) tend to come from playing positions that are central, rather than peripheral. While this evidence is only correlational in nature, the argument is that owners and administrators are more likely to hire coaches who, as players, were more central in determining the outcome of games. Seemingly, quarterbacks, catchers, and guards (in basketball) run the offense, have a greater understanding of the overall picture, and should transition more easily into leadership roles than individuals who played in more remote positions. As previously conveyed, players occupying more central positions tend to be disproportionately white, and upon retirement from playing become a pool of likely candidates for coaching positions. While such an argument is interesting and may partially account for a disproportionate number of white managers and coaches, it certainly does not explain all aspects of the issue. Indeed, there are many coaches and managers who were not former players (Leonard II, Ostrosky, & Huchendorf, 1990), or did not play in central positions. Seemingly, overt discrimination may still play a part in who gets hired. Certainly, Al Campanis’ assertions about blacks not having the "necessities" to take leadership positions in sports was not that of an isolated voice, but typical of beliefs that have existed for hundreds of years, and continue to exit today (Hoberman, 1997).

Concluding Remarks

The issue of race and sport, with special attention to the black athlete, is an interesting story that continues to unfold. Many would prefer not to examine the topic in fear of arousing claims of racism from those who fear such a study simply adds to many of the stereotypical beliefs about black people that tend to separate them from mainstream America. Here it has been argued that the opposite is probably true. A study of the black athlete tells us not only about a uniquely talented group of men and women, but about race relations in the United States, beliefs upon which they are founded, and changes that need to be made within and outside the world of sports to make our society more consistent with the tenets upon which it is based.

From a plethora of sources it seems evident that the demographic anomaly of blacks being disproportionately over-represented in our major sports is not a result of a unique biological predisposition to excel. As previously discussed, anthropologists and geneticists for many years have argued that race as a biological concept is meaningless because of the great genetic variability that exists within and between traditional racial groups. In essence, people with darker skins come in all shapes and sizes with a cross section of abilities and capabilities that overlap with those of people having lighter skin pigmentation. This is not to say that a genetic predisposition to excel in specific sports does not exist, but rather that no one has yet shown such to be related to skin color. The same argument is equally compelling for intellectual capacity. If race as a biological concept is invalid, then too are claims that people with lighter skins are intellectually superior to those with darker skins.

If biological arguments for demographic disproportionality of blacks in sport are discounted, we are forced to look at alternative explanations that may not only account for this phenomenon, but the larger phenomenon of opportunity, in a country founded on the premise that all persons should have an equal opportunity to realize their dreams. While this may be true for black kids who devote extraordinary amounts of time, and expend prodigal amounts of energy honing skills and capacities that allow them to ultimately realize their dream of becoming professional athletes, one must ask why so many see this path as a realistic occupational goal given the odds against succeeding at it, and the odds for succeeding in other careers? Indeed, the large base of aspirants necessary to produce the disproportionate number of black athletes that we see today in our major sports is recognized as a social problem in that the development of other non-athletic skills, leading to more realistic career options, are being neglected (Ashe, 1977). Indeed, while blacks make up 77% of the NBA, 64% of the WNBA, and 65% of the NFL, they are only 4.2% of our physicians, 2.7% of our lawyers, and 2.2% of our civil engineers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1997). The point is that striving to become a professional athlete is a risky proposition for any person since it often requires many years of total dedication that often is associated with a failure to develop knowledge and skill in other areas. The vast majority of aspirants never see a professional pay day, and are ill equipped to do other things. But for a variety of reasons, blacks have become more vulnerable to the carrot that is held out, and the great success of black athletes is accompanied by too many forgotten youth who not only have no contract, but no direction.

The question of why blacks seem so directed to pursuing an athletic career is of considerable interest to students of sport. Edwards (1973) has argued that the major reason for this is a lack of perceived opportunities in other areas. Undoubtedly, overt and covert discrimination has historically played a part in relegating them to support positions, rather than to those of authority and control across a large spectrum of educational and occupational endeavors. Seemingly, black youth who are in search of role models observe blacks as successful athletes and entertainers, but do not see or have contact with the disproportionally few who have succeeded in the professions or in the corporate world. Consequently, these youth commit considerable intellectual and physical energy to becoming professional athletes rather than to a variety of other occupations with which they have difficulty identifying. A recent Sports Illustrated poll showed that 55% of black middle school and high school youth believed that they might be good enough to play in the NBA one day, while only 20% of white youth believed this to be so (Price, 1997a). As well, 49% of the black youth polled thought that they could play in the NFL some time in the future, while 27% of whites believed that they would be able to play in the pros.

The fact that black youth have somewhat of an unrealistic belief in their athletic prospects may seem irrational to the casual observer, but such beliefs are not simply the creation of a group of immature children and adolescents who are living in a fantasy world. As Hoberman (1997) points out, the mystique of the physical superiority of the black athlete is pervasive in both black and white communities around the world, and Price (1997a) conveys that because of such beliefs white athletes are gravitating to peripheral sports, while blacks are taking their places in team sports. The mechanism driving this demographic shift is a system of beliefs, embraced by both groups, that is based on the unfounded biological assertion that blacks are genetically stronger, faster, quicker, and born with optimal instincts for sports requiring speed and power. Interestingly, this is a reversal of thinking held during the colonial era when physical vibrancy was characteristic of white males and associated with the dominance exhibited by European nations over lands inhabited by dark skinned peoples. Hoberman points out that today "...athletic superiority is, in a Darwinian sense, a vestigial trait that possesses ornamental rather than strategic value for nations..." (p. 119), and white dominance over blacks is now achieved by the disparity in power resulting from technological advantages.

This is precisely the point raised by Edwards (1972) a quarter of a century ago when he observed that whites lose little in reinforcing the belief in black physical superiority in that in the modern world physical superiority really counts for very little outside of sports. Indeed, he states that "... a multitude of even lower animals are physically superior, not only to whites, but to mankind as a whole: gorillas are physically superior to whites, leopards are physically superior to whites, as are lions, walruses and elephants. So by asserting that blacks are physically superior, whites at best reinforce some old stereotypes long held about Afro-Americans-to wit, that they are little removed from the apes in evolutionary development" (p. 60). In a technological society a premium is instead put on the intellectual prowess necessary to build and run machines, and process information. This is a key issue for those attempting to dispel the "innate superiority hypothesis" because of the fear that casual acceptance of such is easily yoked to the "intellectual inadequacy hypothesis."

As noted by many observers over the years, such thinking may have invidious consequences, the least of which are evidenced by individuals such as Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder and Al Campanis. The real problem is that when people begin to believe that blacks are advantaged physically, but limited intellectually (e. g., Hernstein, & Murray, 1996), individual behavior may change to reflect and reinforce such thinking. In the end it makes little difference whether or not the genetic hypotheses are correct, since people will behave as if they were, adding further circumstantial evidence to sustain invalid and unsupportable contentions. Indeed, the phenomenon of stacking can be explained by such a mechanism. If one ascribes to the belief that blacks are superior at playing positions requiring speed, power, and reactive capacity, those in control will position black players in such positions. If it is believed that blacks do not have the "necessities" to manage teams, or play in central positions they will not be placed there. Furthermore, if whites believe that they are incapable of competing with blacks in activities requiring speed and power ("White Men Can’t Jump"), they will stop doing so (Price, 1997a). On the other hand, if blacks believe that they are superior to whites in these activities, they will have a greater sense of self-efficacy (e.g., Bandura, 1990), and excel in competition. In the end, the biological hypothesis becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, despite its failure to be corroborated scientifically. Once beliefs and stereotypes are established in our collective unconscious the pattern is difficult to break. How will the demographics of control become more equitable in sport, if we are "stuck" with the belief that what exists, and has existed for some time, is "normal"? Would it not be beneficial to have more black owners, coaches, and administrators in our professional and collegiate sports?



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