Current Issues in Race and Sports

In past interviews and discussions about my senior project, I’ve had many people ask me about the current status of equality in both sports and society. One woman asked me if I believed that discrimination still exists. Another man asked how power played a role. One man even told me that my historical research took an optimistic view of sports and that I may be overlooking problems that have been caused by sports and that are still part of athletics.

There’s no question that the sports world and our overall society have come a long way since the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. That being said, things aren’t perfect. They probably never will be. Discrimination and racism exist, and sometimes they rear their ugly heads and make us shudder at the ignorance some people can display. And, in response to one of the previous comments, I do think that power plays a huge role. It’s human nature to want to be the best, to feel like you’re on top. To accomplish that, you have to put someone below you. That love of power is what I believe to be the source of a lot of prejudice and racism, especially in sports. In the 1940’s, when baseball was divided between the MLB and the Negro Leagues, didn’t the white players in the MLB feel more powerful than their African American counterparts? Their subversion of black players allowed them to become the premier players in the country and ultimately gave members of the MLB a sense of control and superiority. This sentiment is echoed throughout the history of athletics, proving that this human love of power will have to be fought to establish equality in our country.

While there are still issues of race in sports today, they are of a different nature than those seen in previous decades. African Americans are no longer banned from participating in sports; an athlete won’t be ostracized for speaking out for equality. Instead, the issues are more subtle- a lack of diversity in coaching, particularly in football; the exploitation of black student athletes that has resulted in low graduation rates; an abandonment of the African American community by black athletic stars; a “plantation system” in professional sports in which black athletes work for the economic gain of white owners; the misrepresentation of African American athletes by a predominantly white media. This isn’t outright racism; people aren’t being turned away because of the color of their skin. Rather, the fault seems to partially lie in stereotypes and assumptions that define the place of African Americans in sports.

Take, for instance, the lack of diversity in NFL coaching positions. In today’s offensively minded football systems, the best way to become a head coach is to be an offensive coordinator. The best way to become an offensive coordinator is to play quarterback. However, the position of quarterback has historically been filled by white players. Why? Because it is considered a very cerebral position that requires thought and analysis, instead of pure athletic ability, a trait felt to be best embodied by white players, not black. Just look at three black quarterbacks in the NFL today- Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick, and Cam Newton. All three are defined by their remarkable athleticism and running abilities and are rarely praised for their decision making on the field. Even those black quarterbacks that do play in the NFL aren’t considered “smart enough” to eventually become coaches. Ultimately, the stereotypes and prejudice that regarded African Americans as less intelligent and talented than whites has continued, however subtly, today, defining blacks’ place in the game of football and leading to a lack of diversity in coaching.

There are always going to be problems because of race, if only due to the ignorance and stupidity of some people. Sometimes, this will be manifested in sports. At times, it might even be created by sports. That being said, sports have also provided an excellent way to promote equality and acceptance- just look through the rest of this book. We’ve come along way, but there are still obstacles to overcome. As we move forward, the sports world must begin to tackle those racial issues that are more subtle, those that are only undertones to our consciousness. Given the strides we have made in the past decades, I am confident that with a collective conscious effort, we will be able to overcome the racial issues that still exist in sports today.

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