Race and sports

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Issues related to race and sports have been examined by scholars for a long time.[1] Among these issues are racial discrimination in sports as well as the observation that there are overrepresentations and underrepresentations of different races in different sports.

Participation and performance disparities[edit]


Most of the sprinters who run less than 10 seconds are of West African descent, with the majority being of Afro-Caribbean and African-American descent. Namibian (formerly South-West Africa) Frankie Fredericks became the first man of non-West African heritage to achieve the feat in 1991 and in 2003 Australia's Patrick Johnson (who has Irish and Indigenous Australian heritage) became the first sub-10-second runner without an African background.[2][3][4][5]

In 2010, Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre became the first white European under ten seconds (although Poland's Marian Woronin had unofficially surpassed the barrier with a time of 9.992 seconds in 1984).[6] In 2011, Zimbabwean Ngonidzashe Makusha became the 76th man to break the barrier, yet only the fourth man not of West African descent.[7] No sprinter from South Asia, East Africa or North Africa has officially achieved this feat.[8][9] In 2015 Su Bingtian of China became the first ethnic East Asian athlete to officially break the 10 second barrier and British athlete Adam Gemili – who is of mixed Iranian and Moroccan descent – became the first athlete with either North African or Middle Eastern heritage to break the ten second barrier.[10][not in citation given]

Some studies have claimed that biological factors may be largely responsible for the disproportionate success in sprinting events enjoyed by athletes of West African descent. Chief among these is a preponderance of natural fast twitch muscle fibers, which aid in quicker reaction times. Scientists have concluded that elite-level sprinting is virtually impossible in the absence of the ACTN3 protein, a "speed gene" most common among persons of West African descent that renders fast twitch muscle fibers fast.[11] Top sprinters of differing ancestry, such as Christophe Lemaitre, are believed to be exceptions in that they too likely have the genes favourable for sprinting.[11]

Endurance running[edit]

Many Nilotic groups also excel in long and middle distance running. Jon Entine has argued that this sporting prowess stems from their exceptional running economy.[12] This in turn is a function of slim body morphology and slender legs,[13] a preponderance of slow twitch muscle fibers, a low heart rate gained from living at high-altitude,[14] as well as a culture of running to school from a young age. A study by Pitsiladis et al. (2006) questioning 404 elite distance runners from Kenya found that 76% of the international-class respondents hailed from the Kalenjin ethnic group and that 79% spoke a Nilotic language.[15]

Joseph L. Graves argues that Kenyan athletes from the African Great Lakes region who have done well in long distance running all have come from high-altitude areas, whereas those from low-altitude areas do not perform particularly well. He also argues that Koreans and Ecuadorians from high-altitude areas compete well with Kenyans in long-distance races. This suggests that it is the fact of having trained in a high altitude, combined with possible local level physiological adaptations to high-altitude environments that is behind the success in long distance running, not race. Similarly, Graves argues that while it is superficially true that most of the world recordholders in the 100-metre dash are of West African heritage, they also all have partial genetic heritage from Europe and Native America, they have also all trained outside of West Africa, and West African nations have not trained any top-level runners. Graves says these factors make it impossible to say to which degree the success is best attributed to genetic or to environmental factors.[16]

Views in the United States[edit]

Various individuals, including scholars and sportswriters, have commented on the apparent overrepresentations and underrepresentations of different races in different sports. African Americans accounted for 75% of players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) near the end of 2008.[17] According to the latest National Consortium for Academics and Sports equality report card, 65% of National Football League players were African Americans. However, in 2008, about 8.5% of Major League Baseball players were African American (who make up about 13% of the US population, 6.5% male, no women play in MLB), and 29.1% were Hispanics of any race (compared with about 16% of the US population).[17] In 2015, only about 5% of the National Hockey League (NHL) players are black or of mixed black heritage.[18]

NCAA sports have mirrored the trends present in American professional sports. During the 2005–2006 season, black males comprised 46.9 percent of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and 58.9 percent of NCAA Division I basketball.[19] The NCAA statistics show a strong correlation between percentage of black athletes within a sport and the revenue generated by that sport. For example, University of North Carolina's 2007–2008 men's basketball team (the team was 59% black relative to the 3.7% black population of the institution as a whole) generated $17,215,199 in revenue, which comprised 30 percent of the school's athletic revenue for the year.[20] Given NCAA rules prohibiting the payment of players, some have come to see the structure of NCAA athletics as exploitative of college athletes. Some believe that since black athletes comprise a high percentage of athletes in high revenue college sports (FBS football and Division I Men's basketball), they are therefore the biggest losers in this arrangement. Billy Hawkins argues that "the control over the Black male's body and profiting off its physical expenditure is in the hands of White males."[21] His position refers to a very high percentage of Division I universities controlled by white administrations that prosper greatly from the free labor produced by the revenue sports that are heavily populated by black athletes. This claim is substantiated by statistics, such as the 2005–2006 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament in which games started, and minutes played for black athletes were over double that of their white counterparts, with 68.7 percent of scoring in the tournament coming from black players.[22]

Graduation rates[edit]

Despite the high rate of participation in the NCAA amongst black athletes, the rates of on-court success have not necessarily translated to the classroom. A University of Central Florida study of 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament teams indicated that only 59 percent of black players graduated, compared with 91 percent of white players.[23] The disparity can be much larger: Kansas State men's basketball program graduates 100 percent of its white players and only 14 percent of its black players.[23] The other main NCAA revenue sport, FBS football, also has a graduation discrepancy. The 2011-12 TIDES report on bowl-bound FBS teams found that the average graduation rate for white football student athletes was 81 percent on bowl-bound teams, and 61 percent for black student athletes,[24] and 26 percent of the bowl-bound schools graduated less than half of their black football student athletes, while not a single school graduated less than half of its white student athletes.[25]

"Black athletic superiority"[edit]

"Black athletic superiority" is the theory that black people possess certain traits that are acquired through genetic and/or environmental factors that allow them to excel over other races in athletic competition. Whites are more likely to hold these views; however, some blacks and other racial affiliations do as well.[26][27][28] A 1991 poll in the United States indicated that half of the respondents agreed with the belief that "blacks have more natural physical ability".[29]

Various theories regarding racial differences of black and white people and their possible effect on sports performance have been put forth since the later part of the nineteenth century by professionals in many different fields.[30] In the United States, attention to the subject faded over the first two decades of the twentieth century as black athletes were eliminated from white organized sport and segregated to compete among themselves on their own amateur and professional teams.[31] Interest in the subject was renewed after the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and Jesse Owens's record-breaking performances at the 1935 Big Ten Track Championships.[31]

In 1971, African-American sociologist Harry Edwards wrote: "The myth of the black male's racially determined, inherent physical and athletic superiority over the white male, rivals the myth of black sexual superiority in antiquity."[32]

John Milton Hoberman, a historian and Germanic studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has acknowledged that disparities in certain athletic performances exist. He has asserted that there is no evidence to confirm the existence of "black athletic superiority".[33]

"East Asian athletic views"[edit]

In the United States, East Asians are stereotyped as being physically and athletically inferior to other races.[34][35] This has led to much discrimination in the recruitment process of professional American sports, which contributes to Asian American athletes being highly underrepresented in the majority of professional sports teams (a fact that has been noted by many sources).[36][37][38][39][40] Professional basketball player Jeremy Lin believed that one of the reasons why he wasn't drafted by a NBA team was his race.[41] This belief has been reiterated by sports writer Sean Gregory of Time magazine and NBA commissioner David Stern.[42] In 2012, despite making up 6% of nation's population Asian American athletes only represented 2% of the NFL, 1.9% of the MLB and less than 1% of the NBA and NHL. Brandon Yip was the only player of Chinese descent playing professional hockey in the NHL in 2011.[35][43] Basketball should be a sport that's noted for the fact that it has one of the lowest amounts of Asian athletes being represented despite the fact that the sport's color barrier was broken by an Asian American athlete back in 1947 named Wataru Misaka who was the first American racial minority to play in the NBA.[44]

In American sports, there are and has been a higher representation of Asian American athletes who are of mixed racial heritage in comparison to those of full racial heritage such as the case with former football player Roman Gabriel who was the first Asian-American to start as an NFL quarterback. Another fact to note is that majority of Asian American athletes who are currently drafted/recruited to compete professionally tend to be in sports that require little to no contact.[35]

Chinese views[edit]

The idea among Chinese people that "genetic differences" cause "Asian athletes" to be "slower at sprinting" than "their American, African or European rivals" is "widely accepted". The People's Daily, a Chinese newspaper, wrote that Chinese are "suited" to sports that draw upon "agility and technique", such as table tennis, badminton and gymnastics. The newspaper said that Chinese people have "congenital shortcomings" and "genetic differences" that meant that they are disadvantaged at "purely athletic events" when competing against "black and white athletes". The success of hurdler Liu Xiang was explained by the hurdles event requiring technique which fit with the stereotype that Chinese are disciplined and intelligent.[45]

Li Aidong, a researcher with the China Institute of Sports Science, said that sports coaches believed that Chinese athletes could have success in long jumping, high jumping and race walking. However, Li doubted that Chinese could compete in "pure sprinting", although there did not exist any "credible scientific studies" which supported the idea that "Asians" were disadvantaged in "sprinting".[45] Professional sprinters Su Bingtian of China and Yoshihide Kiryū of Japan have contradicted this view of East Asians struggling to achieve quick footspeed, as both have broken the 10-second barrier in the 100 m and Su has ranked in the top five all-time fastest runners over 60 metres.[46][47]

Explanations for participation and performance disparities[edit]

Physiological factors[edit]

A 1994 examination of 32 English sport/exercise science textbooks found that seven suggested that there are biophysical differences due to race that might explain differences in sports performance, one expressed caution with the idea, and the other 24 did not mention the issue.[48]

Socioeconomic factors[edit]

In Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, UCLA researcher Jane Margolis outlines the history of segregation in swimming in the United States to show how blacks have been affected up to the present day by inadequate access to swimming facilities and lessons.[49] Margolis asserts that physiological differences between ethnic groups are relatively minor and says: "In most cases of segregation, stereotypes and belief systems about different ethnic gender groups' genetic make-up and physical abilities (and inabilities) emerge to rationalize unequal access and resulting disparities."[49] According to Margolis, views regarding "buoyancy problems" of African Americans are merely part of folklore which have been passed down from generation to generation.[49] Joan Ferrante, a professor of sociology at Northern Kentucky University, suggests that geographic location, financial resources, and the influence of parents, peers, and role models are involved in channeling individuals of certain races towards particular sports and away from others.[50]

Haplogroup inheritance[edit]

Elite athletic capacity has also been correlated with differing patterns of haplogroup inheritance. Moran et al. (2004) observed that among Y-DNA (paternal) clades borne by elite endurance athletes in Ethiopia, the E*, E3*, K*(xP),[51] and J*(xJ2)[52] are positively correlated with elite athletic endurance performance, whereas the haplogroup E3b1 is significantly less frequent among the elite endurance athletes.[51]

Citing haplogroup data from various previous studies, Ahmetov and Fedotovskaya (2012) report that the mtDNA (maternal) haplogroups I, H, L0, M*, G1, N9, and V have been positively correlated with elite athletic endurance performance, whereas the mtDNA haplogroups L3*, B, K, J2, and T are negatively correlated with athletic endurance performance. Japanese sprinters were also found to have a higher distribution of the mtDNA F.[53]

Racial prejudices, discrimination, segregation, and integration[edit]

The baseball color line, which included separate Negro league baseball, was one example of racial segregation in the United States.

In the United States, a study found that a form of racial discrimination exists in NBA basketball, as white players received higher salaries than do blacks related to actual performance. Funk says this may be due to viewer discrimination. Viewership increases when there is greater participation by white players, which means higher advertising incomes. This explains much of the salary gap.[54]

Researchers have looked at other evidence for sports consumer discrimination. One method is comparing the price of sports memorabilia, such as baseball cards. Another is looking at fan voting for all-star teams. Still another is looking at willingness to attend sporting events. The evidence is mixed, with some studies finding bias against blacks and others not. A bias, if it exists, may be diminishing and possibly disappearing, according to a study on fan voting for baseball all-star teams.[54]

Major League Baseball[edit]

Debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Jackie Robinson was the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era.

Blacks in American baseball
Year Major leagues Population Ratio
1945 2% 10% 1:5
1959 17% 11% 3:2
1975 27% 11% 5:2
1995 19% 12% 3:2


The under-representation of blacks in U.S. baseball ended during the early years of the civil rights movement.

National Basketball Association[edit]

Although Japanese-American Wataru Misaka broke the National Basketball Association's color barrier in the 1947–48 season when he played for the New York Knicks, 1950 is recognized as the year the NBA integrated. That year African-American players joined several teams; they included Chuck Cooper with the Boston Celtics, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton with the New York Knicks, and Earl Lloyd with the Washington Bullets.

National Football League[edit]

Black players participated in the National Football League from its inception in 1920; however, there were no African-American players from 1933 to 1946.

In October 2018, George Taliaferro, the first African American who played in NFL died at the age of 91.[57]

Professional Golfers Association[edit]

In 1961, the "Caucasians only" clause was struck from the Professional Golfers' Association of America constitution.

Positions of power: coaching and administration[edit]

Referring to quarterbacks, head coaches, and athletic directors, Kenneth L. Shropshire of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has described the number of African Americans in "positions of power" as "woefully low".[1] In 2000, 78% of players in the NBA were black, but only 33% of NBA officials were minorities.[58] The lack of minorities in positions of leadership has been attributed to racial stereotypes as well "old boy networks" and white administrators networking within their own race.[58] In 2003, the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule, requiring teams searching for a new head coach to interview at least one minority candidate.[58]

Similar to the discrepancy between participation and leadership of blacks in American professional sports leagues, NCAA sports also have had a low percentage of administrators and coaches relative to the number of athletes. For example, during the 2005–2006 academic year, high revenue NCAA sports (basketball and football) had 51 percent black student athletes, whereas only 17 percent of head coaches in the same high revenue sports were black[59] Also, in the same 2005–2006 year, only 5.5 percent of athletic directors at Division I "PWIs" (Primarily White Institutions), were black.[60] Terry Bowden, a notable white Division I football coach, suggests that the reason many university presidents will not hire black coaches is "because they are worried about how alumni and donors will react."[60] Bowden also refers to the "untapped talent"[22] existing within the ranks of assistant coaches in Division I football. The data backs up this claim, with 26.9 percent of Division I assistant coaches during the 2005-06 year in men's revenue sports being black,[61] a notably higher percentage than of head coaches. In terms of administrative positions, they have been concentrated largely in the hands of whites. As recently as 2009, 92.5 percent of university presidents in the FBS were white, 87.5 percent of athletic directors were white, and 100 percent of the conference commissioners were white.[62] Despite these statistics, black head coaches have become more prevalent at the FBS level. As of 2012, there are now 15 black head coaches in FBS football,[63] including now 3 in the SEC, a conference that did not hire its first black head coach until 2003.[64]

Segregated seating[edit]

In 1960, the Houston Oilers implemented a policy at Jeppesen Stadium to segregate the black fans from the white fans.[65] Clem Daniels, Art Powell, Bo Roberson, and Fred Williamson of the Oakland Raiders refused to play in a stadium that had segregated seating. The 1963 game against the New York Jets was relocated to a different stadium.[66]

Mascot controversies[edit]

The use of Native American names and imagery for sport mascots or in franchise memorabilia is an issue of ongoing discussion and controversy in American sports, as some Native American representatives have objected to such use without explicit negotiation and permission.[67]

Promoting racial harmony and breaking stereotypes[edit]

According to William Jeynes, a professor of education at California State University, Long Beach, the gathering at the first Thanksgiving in the United States was an attempt to create racial harmony through games and sporting contests that included running, shooting and wrestling.[68] Huping Ling, a professor of history at Truman State University, has asserted that the participation of Chinese students in sports helped break local stereotypes in the St. Louis area during the 1920s.[69]

Issues in Sports Commentating[edit]

Racial remarks have been made about athletes of color throughout history. Radio host Don Imus described the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" on his radio program "Inmus in the Morning" in 2007. Later on he proclaimed that the match-up between Rutgers and their opponents looked like a showdown of the "jigaboos versus the wannabes." [70]

In 1988 sports commentator Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder proclaimed his theory on why Black Americans are more athletic than White Americans:

"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid …"

Snyder was later fired by CBS. [71]

People of Color in Commentating[edit]

Sherman Maxwell was the first African American sports broadcaster. He began his career in 1929 on WNJ radio. He was known as "the voice of Newark". [72]

Portrayals in film[edit]

The US-set films Hoosiers and Rudy have been described as memorializing the "golden age of sports" as a time of white prevalence and dominance,[73] while Glory Road showed a white coach helping to dissolve the color barrier in college basketball.

Invictus deals with the subject of the Rugby World Cup in post-apartheid South Africa.


Inequality in sport for the Aboriginal Australians exists due to material barriers.[74] A 2007 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission suggested that fear of "racial vilification" was partly responsible for the under-representation of Aboriginal and other ethnic groups in Australian sports.[75]

South Africa[edit]

In South Africa, black representation on the cricket and rugby national sports teams is ensured via the introduction of quotas.[76]

United States[edit]

Discussions of race and sports in the United States, where the two subjects have always been intertwined in American history, have focused to a great extent on African Americans.[77] Depending on the type of sport and performance level, African Americans are reported to be over- or under-represented.[77] African Americans compose the highest percentage of the minority groups active at the professional level, but are among those who show the lowest participation overall.[77]

In 2013, while 2.8% of full-time degree-pursuing undergraduates were black men, the group comprised 57% of college football teams,[78] and 64% of men's basketball players.[79] While blacks predominate in football and basketball, whites predominate in all other regulated sports.[80]

A 2001 study indicated that black high school students play harder than white students, because the former were more likely to perceive sports as a venue to success. The study denies that racial characteristics, per se, is a factor in success in sports.[80]

For all races and sports, from 3.3% (basketball) to 11.3% (ice hockey) are successful in making the transition from high school varsity to an NCAA team.[81] From .8% (men's ice hockey) to 9.4% (baseball) successfully transition from NCAA to professional teams. Therefore, the overall success rate of high school athletes progressing to professional athletes was from .03% (men and women's basketball) to .5% (baseball). The annual number of NCAA athletes drafted into professional sports annually varied from seven (men's ice hockey) to 678 (baseball).[82]

Unlike black athletes, blacks as a group have not perceived sports as an important venue to prosperity. There are higher participation rates by blacks as well as higher numbers of people in non-athletic endeavor, such as policy, teaching, physicians, lawyers, engineers, and architects.[83]

Athletics have been increasingly subsidized by tuition. Only one in eight of the 202 Division I colleges actually netted more money than they spent on athletics between the years 2005 and 2010. At the few money making schools, football and sometimes basketball sales support the school's other athletic programs. The amount spent on an athlete in one of the six highest-profile football conferences, on average, is six times more than the amount spent to educate the non-athlete. Spending per student varied from $10,012 to $19,225; cost per athlete varied from $41,796 to $163,931.[84]

See also[edit]


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