U.S. Fictions: Sports “Greatly Improve Race Relations”

In 2013, a Rasmussen Reports survey indicated “Most Americans (53%) believe professional sports have helped improve race relations in the United States…just 20% of American adults disagree. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure.” It is difficult for me to agree with this majority stance that professional sport has had a positive societal impact on race relations in the US when I see the lack of strides college sport and other major institutions (e.g., economic, political, educational) have made, and the mistreatment people of color continue to endure at the hands of the criminal justice system. Race relations may have improved within some major professional sport organizations, but to say race relations have improved in the US is stretching a bit far.

It is true that some of the most popular professional sport organizations have tackled their diversity issues recently. For instance, in the NFL, while the number of head coaches has diminished from an all-time high of eight people of color in 2011 to four in 2013, there have been other racial and ethnic advances. There has been progress in the hiring and promotion of racial and ethnic minorities above the VP level, general managers, senior administrators, professional positions, and even the first majority team owner. Additionally, although the number of African American players continues to decrease in MLB, the overall racial and ethnic minority landscape continues to rise with an increase in people of color as coaches, professional administrators, senior administrators, and VPs. Moreover, as the most progressive of the professional organizations, the NBA has made the most headway. This has been most vivid with over 80% of players being people of color, the second highest number of African American head coaches in history, a new record number of racial and ethnic minority assistant coaches, and an increase in people of color as senior administrators, team physicians, and NBA officials.

While these numbers seem promising for professional sport, college sport continues to lag behind in race relation improvements. The multi-billion dollar institution of college sport reveals that while black student-athletes are overrepresented in the most revenue generating sports (men’s basketball and football) their numbers beyond the playing fields and courts are trailing behind. When black male students-athletes in NCAA Division I athletics make up 57.2% and 43.2% of the athletes in basketball and football, respectively, but their numbers as head coaches (18.6% and 11.3%) and assistant coaches (39.0% and 25.7%) are marginally represented, then it is clear there is a race relations problem. This problem is even more pronounced considering that whites control the athletic director roles (89.0%), the highest level of athletic power on college campuses. If these numbers are not disturbing enough, they get even worse when the discussion moves outside of sport.

If professional sports have helped improve race relations, then why are there only 13% people of color serving as college presidents, or 16.8% racial and ethnic minorities in Congress , or 4.6% running Fortune 500 companies? Do we even have to go to the criminal justice system? If professional sports are improving race relations in the US, then why are unarmed black youths (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis) continuing to be gunned down and the perpetrators do not have to answer for these crimes?

I think it is appalling to know that in the thirty-one states where the “Stand your Ground” law exists, whites who kill blacks are 354% more likely to be cleared of murder. If race relation improvements in professional sport have somehow trickled out to the rest of the US, I would sure like to know exactly where.

It seems that when such questions are being asked of participants on the impact they perceive professional sports to have on society’s race relations, they are either in a state of denial, blind to the realities of their surroundings, or perhaps the colorful façade of the playing fields and courts have mislead them. As Feagin (2014) argues, it is difficult to deny the existence of racial oppression when we still have housing segregation, discrimination in employment, obstacles in education, disparities in healthcare, barriers in business, and the many environmental health concerns that disproportionately affect people of color. While professional sports may have historically set the tone in breaking down racial barriers, and more recently with their progressiveness on creating more diverse organizations, it seems the rest of US society is still looking from the outside in unwilling to move in the same direction or at the same pace.

Racial Injustice in Coaching: Similar Events, Different Outcomes (UPDATED)

United States history has taught us it is not new or unusual that blacks are viewed as second class citizens compared to whites; our contemporary realities has informed us that women are not on equal footing as men; and our society has still not come to grips that one’s sexual orientation could be anything other than heterosexual, if that individual is to be positively accepted. What can make matters much worse is when someone possesses any combination of these nonnormative characteristics. For instance, a black female who is also lesbian would be located at the lower rungs of human acceptance in the US, even more illuminated when compared to a white heterosexual male. While there are an abundant number of discriminatory examples in which a combination of race, gender and sexual orientation can lead to detrimental consequences when that mixture is located at the opposite end of what is “normal”, none has been more predominant than the recent “discretionary discipline” handed down to the two coaches at the University of Texas (Austin).

For those who are not familiar with the recent events at UT, let me briefly explain. Although two coaches at UT both had consensual relationships with students at the university, the ramifications of the two incidents proved discriminatory. Bev Kearney, a black lesbian and head female track and field coach, was forced out of her 20-year-long career after admitting her previous relationship with a student-athlete. Major Applewhite, a white heterosexual male and assistant football coach, was only suspended after revealing he had a one-night-stand with a student athletic trainer. What makes matters even more puzzling is consensual relationships between staff and students, according to university policy, are not explicitly prohibited. It can be argued that other factors played a role in this decision such as football being a high-profile revenue-generating sport and track and field being a low-profile sport, and thus sacrifices can be made. However, the obvious double standard, especially when accounting for the success of Kearney (e.g., seven national championships, high student graduate rates, inspiring mentor, International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame inductee), makes this woman’s characteristics (i.e., black, female, lesbian) more of the cause than an inadvertent coincidence.

Being a black woman is already problematic enough in the US, with this group receiving far less access to society’s resources, underrepresented in every major institution, and having to work harder than any other group to make it (see Feagin, 2010), adding lesbian to the mix most definitely muddles things. Although there are few laws in contemporary society that institutionally limit the lives of the LGBT community, Pharr (1997) suggests a restrictively heterosexual and homophobic culture continues to bind these individuals. This is no different in the sport context. For instance, Krane and Barber (2005) found discriminatory hiring practices to exist towards female coaches perceived to be lesbian. Even when these women do make it through the interview process and eventually hired, Griffin (1998) argues the “lesbian stigma” continues to threaten their status and power and contributes to the maintenance of their out-group status. Researchers (e.g., Wright and Clark, 1999) contend that media discourse plays a principal role in perpetuating these inequalities, since they “construct a particular view of the world, of both individuals and social relations” (p. 228).

It is the numerous media outlets discussing the case of these coaches that perpetuate the differences between the two. For instance, in the various media accounts there is no mention of the type of relationship (homosexual or heterosexual) that Applewhite was involved in, but in almost every account Kearney is characterized as a black woman who had a lesbian relationship. Similarly, Applewhite and his family are continually discussed in a positive way through the media, which appears to suggest he has more to lose and we have to give him a chance; whereas outside of her accolades as a UT track and field coach, there is minimal reference of Kearny’s personal life. Just like there are two sets of rules applied in these similar cases, there are two different stories being disseminated to the public. Consequently, the powerful institutions of sport and the media continue to remind us what is most valued in the US: men over women, heterosexual over homosexual, and white over black.

UPDATE: I had several interesting conversations with folks about this blog piece. For the record, these were not contentious conversations, just casual talk with acquaintances. For instance, one person said they liked the post, but thought I should have focused more on Kearney’s race than her sexual orientation. Another said they didn’t believe sexual orientation played a big role in her being viewed negatively; it was primarily her being a woman and black. A third person didn’t think sexual orientation should have been an emphasis on a “racism” blog. I tried telling these folks that every media account highlighted Kearney’s sexual orientation while no mention of Applewhite’s, and thought it was an important inclusion to demonstrate how it may have compounded (on top of race and gender) her negative treatment. I suggested that maybe they should go look up the dozens of media accounts and tell me what they think afterwards… By the way, these were all black folks.

Bibliography and items to read:
*Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

*Krane, V., & Barber, H. (2005). Identity tensions in lesbian intercollegiate coaches. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76, 67-81.

*Pharr, S. (1997). Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press.

*Wright, J., & Clark, G. (1999). Sport, the media and the construction of compulsory heterosexuality: A case study of Women’s Rugby Union. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(3), 227-243.

Racial Barriers to College Coaching

Have you ever wondered to yourself while watching a college football game on a Saturday afternoon why there are so many (often times a majority) black players on the field, but an overwhelming majority of fans and coaches are white? If you have not, rest assured you are not alone. The black athlete and everything else white seems to be the norm. The problem, however, is this racial standard continues to hamper blacks’ progression throughout US society, and is even more elucidated in the very institution one would expect the most progress to be made – sport.

(Image source)

When considering the historical and systemic nature of racism in the US (see Feagin, 2006), much more attention has been placed on economic, political, educational, and legal institutions. The institution of sport, however, tends to be overlooked. Perhaps this is the case because of its egalitarian façade that gets displayed to the public. What is not being shown is the real racial inequality that has and continues to exist in the leadership structure of sport. Most prominent is the multi-billion dollar industry of NCAA Division I collegiate athletics. For instance, according to Lapchick, Hoff, and Kaiser’s (2011) latest Racial and Gender Report Card for college athletics, black male student-athletes are overly represented (60.9% and 45.8%) in the two most revenue generating sports (basketball and football, respectively); however, black head coaches for men’s basketball and football are represented at 21% and 5.1%, respectively, and assistant coaches at 39.5% and 17.6%, respectively. Even worse, whites dominate (81.8%) the athletic director role as well. Considering sport represents a microcosm of society, reflecting its ideals, hierarchies, and problems (see Edwards, 1973; Eitzen & Sage, 1997; Sage, 1998), it is not surprising to see whites in a position that guarantees them the most abundant financial rewards. As a result of this white hierarchy, though, blacks wishing to enter the coaching profession continue to face racial barriers.

Hawkins (2001) argues the power structure of NCAA Division I predominantly white institutions of higher education (PWIHE) “operate as colonizers who prey on the athletic prowess of young black males, recruit them from black communities, exploit their athletic talents, and discard them once they are injured or their eligibility is exhausted” (p. 1). This colonial model seems fitting, given several researchers (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003) have found that black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are entrenched in a system that exploits them politically, economically, and racially. For those black student-athletes who do survive the abuse, they continue to find their professional outlook limited.

The notion of stacking in sport, or positioning of players to central or non-central positions on the field based on race and/or ethnicity, often surfaces as an explanation as to how whites carry on their dominance in sport leadership. Whites have traditionally placed themselves in more central positions, positions associated with greater interaction, leadership, and intelligence; while blacks have been situated in more peripheral positions, which are linked to less leadership, minimal interaction, and greater athletic ability. Brooks and Althouse (2000) found there to be a correlation between those higher up in the leadership ranks (e.g., head coach, athletic director) with past playing position. In particular, prestigious sport jobs are generally acquired by those who have played more central positions (e.g., quarterback in football, pitcher in baseball); thus, because blacks more often are relegated to peripheral positions (e.g., wide-receiver in football, outfield in baseball), blacks are often framed as less qualified to enter leadership positions beyond the playing field.

Further explanations (e.g., Sagas & Cunningham, 2005; Sartore & Cunningham, 2006) demonstrate blacks’ promotional and/or hiring coaching opportunities are thwarted due to the tendency of white decision-makers choosing white candidates (qualified and unqualified) over qualified blacks. This struggle for racial equality is more troubling given those with the final hiring decision (i.e., athletic director) perceive employment opportunities to be equal for blacks (Tabron, 2004), which ultimately trickles down to those wishing to enter the coaching profession (e.g., black student-athletes), since they perceive they will have to contend with racial inequality prior to and once in the profession (e.g., Cunningham & Singer; Kamphoff & Gill, 2008). This racist sporting reality, similar to wider US society, illustrates blacks have a long way to go for racial justice.

Michael R. Regan, Jr.
Texas A&M University