barriers-to-entry-in-sports

August 15th, 1947: a day that will live in race-barrier-breaking infamy. Jackie Robinson played his first Major League Baseball game and broke the color barrier in baseball. Robinson paid a heavy price for being the first to cross this threshold. From bigotry on the field to hate-filled venom from the stands, to isolation within the locker room, he suffered many indignities to play a game he loved and exceeded at. His courage changed the face of professional sports diversity as we know it.

This is a feature article for outofboundsmag.com  I write a column on youth sports and a feature for the online magazine monthly.

In the National Football League, for example, 68.7 percent of the players are African American, according to a report card on race in the NFL. This is a far cry from the early days of pro football when the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame ruled the gridiron or when Jim Brown was evading tacklers. Based on the growth of diversity in pro football alone, one could assume that everything Jackie Robinson went through has paid off. And in many ways it has, as the fact that overall, two-third of players in arguably the most popular sport in America are African American. If that is the case, then why, for example, is ice hockey so white? Why is baseball dominated by Latinos and whites? What barriers are stopping different races from participating equally in all sports?

Ice Hockey Pic

Before identifying the racial barriers, it is important to examine the current state of sports. As of 2014, there were 30 players of African descent playing in the National Hockey League. That is an average of less than one for every team in the league. In Major League Baseball, as of 2015, 8.3 percent of players are African American, while a whopping 58.8 percent are white. And only 29.3 percent are Latinos. In three major sports leagues in America, the racial diversity seems to be imbalanced and made up of predominantly one or two races. So, what is stopping more Asians, Latinos, and blacks from playing ice hockey, more whites, Asians, and Latinos from playing football, and more African Americans and Asians from playing baseball? What are the barriers?

Race in Baseball

Costs

Sports cost money to play as a child progresses in age and ability. Costs can include travel, equipment, training, league fees, fundraisers, and in some cases for parents, missed time from work for travel. All of these costs add up, and how the youth organizations help supplement these costs can make or break how long a child sticks with the sport.

An ESPN article details the cost of equipment for a female ice hockey player from youth to her teens. The total cost was north of $48,000. That includes equipment, travel, club dues, camps, clinics, and classes. Depending on a family’s socioeconomic footing, the cost of playing a sport like ice hockey is too high. Even if programs at the youth level rent or donate equipment, the continuing costs are prohibitive.

Contrast that to football. A USA football article states, “About 21 percent of parents spend $1,000 or more on their child’s sports activities every year. These stats do not include health care costs for sport-related injuries.” That is a fraction of the cost of ice hockey. Because many youth sports programs provide the equipment for a child in football, football suddenly becomes a more attractive option financially. The same can be said for baseball. Baseball involves much less equipment, and it is easier to find programs or institutions that will provide equipment.

Stat Pic

Demographics and Location

Drive through any urban landscape and see how many ice rinks you find. In Baltimore, there are two ice rinks, for example. In Milwaukee, a colder northern city, there are also two ice rinks. However, count the number of baseball and football fields, or even public parks for that matter, where football and baseball can be played. You will find a plethora of those available in any given city.

In addition to local availability of places to play, where one lives can become its own barrier. Drive through the different regions of the country and look for locations to play ice hockey versus football or baseball. The United States of Hockey lists the rank of each state for hockey participation as of 2014. States in the deep South and middle of the country rank lower. Oklahoma, for example, is ranked number 47. New York and other northeast states and upper Midwest rank higher. Where you live can have an impact on the sport you play.

Examine demographics by state according to the U.S. Census Bureau and a larger picture emerges. Mississippi, for example, which ranks last in ice hockey participation has an African American population that is roughly 600,000 less than the white population. New York has 10 million more whites than blacks, and ranks third among ice hockey participation. The makeup of the state demographics and its correlation to a particular sport ranking in regard to race are not coincidental.

Considering many urban communities are filled with minorities, it makes sense that those groups would gravitate toward the more available sporting option on a locational basis. According to PBS, “Across the nation, four out of five whites live outside of the cities, and 86 percent of whites live in neighborhoods where minorities make up less than 1 percent of the population. In contrast, 70 percent of blacks and Latinos live in the cities or inner-ring suburbs.” If the ice rinks are in the suburbs, which have more white people statistically, then it makes sense white people play more ice hockey. And if more football fields, baseball diamonds, and parks are the main option in urban centers where blacks and Latinos reside in larger numbers, it makes more sense that the majority of minorities who live there would play those sports.

Socioeconomic Status

As we see cost and location act as barriers to participation in different sports, so does socioeconomic status. Families that cannot afford the expense of costly sports like ice hockey will not play them. However, if families are really struggling, an extra seasonal sport may take a back seat as well. And as we have seen, if the person lives in a certain area and cannot afford one sport, it leaves few other options. So, a financially struggling family that lives in a city and has access to baseball and football may choose just one sport because on their financial situation. For African Americans, that financial situation is worse as a whole than for whites. According to State of Working America, African Americans saw declines in wages, income, jobs, wealth disparity, and poverty through the Great Recession in 2009 and beyond. In fact, poverty was devastating as late as 2010, according to the same source.

  • In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks lived in in poverty, compared to the overall U.S. poverty rate of 15.1 percent.
  • 45.8 percent of black children under age 6 lived in poverty, more than three times the rate for young white children.

To put it more bluntly, whites have more wealth than blacks and Latinos. According to Forbes, “In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household, and $8,348 for the median Latino household.” This further illustrates that blacks and Latinos simply cannot afford an expensive sport such as ice hockey. This further explains the larger numbers of African Americans and Latinos in lower cost sports like baseball and football. And it further supports the theory that a struggling minority family may choose one sport to pay for instead of two or three. Thus, in the minority communities, we see more participation in football and baseball, which is reflected in the race stats for their respective professional leagues. But there is one more factor acting as a barrier to participation that is more silent.

Combatting Prejudice

The illusion of equality is just that: an illusion. As the statistics examined thus far show, equality is far from a reality. And even though some may be reluctant to admit it, we cannot ignore the fact that prejudice still exists. In fact, at the time of writing this article, the tension in this country over the racial divide is higher than ever. Between a presidential race where one candidate is constantly bashing minorities, to police shootings of minorities by white officers, one cannot ignore the effervescent prejudice. PBS sums it up best:

“Race, wealth and life opportunities are intertwined in the United States. Today, white and nonwhite communities are still ‘separate and unequal’ and the gap continues to grow, long after the Civil Rights era. Wealth, and the opportunities it affords, is passed down through successive generations. Along with it, Americans have also inherited a legacy of inequality that continues to shape the future. Segregation and the wealth gap between whites and nonwhites did not arise on their own. And because they are so deeply entrenched in the institutions that structure our society, they will not fade away by simply outlawing discriminatory policies.”

Sports are not an exception to the reality. The fact that sports are so lopsided in racial equity is simply a reflection of the state of racial imbalance in our society, and that is probably the biggest barrier to certain races participating more in certain sports.

The confluence of many factors intertwining creates barriers into sports for different races. Cost of sports alone can be its own barrier. But when combined with where different races live and what is available to them, regional demographics and their correlation to available sports, and socioeconomic status of different races, and you have a powerful cocktail for one monstrous barrier that will take a mighty effort to break. Add to that the racial prejudice that still undermines society, and you now have a more fortified barrier. In the end, while it should not matter, the color of one’s skin, where they live, and how they are perceived still affect their opportunities in life. Although sports are not everything, for many minorities they symbolize a way to a better life. And to be robbed of that opportunity through multiple sports due to factors out of their control is a shame.