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.