Note: I wrote the following several years ago. I have attempted to update some of the statistics and research, but because of time constraints, I may have missed some.
The Sportin’ Life & Million Dollar Slaves
Shaq is rich, the white man who signs his check is wealthy… Wealth is passed down from generation to generation; you can’t get rid of wealth. Rich is some shit you can loose with a crazy summer and a drug habit.
— Chris Rock on wealth
One of the consequences of racism is that whiteness is rendered invisible. Whites can afford to be nonchalant about race because they cannot see how a racist society produces advantages for them because these benefits appear so natural they are taken for granted. They literally do not see how race undergirds the social institutions of the US and how it affects the distribution of opportunity and wealth.
What’s more, if people of color cry foul, if they call attention to the way they are treated or to racial inequality, if they try to change the way advantage is distributed, if they try to adjust the rules of the game, white people in the US see them as trouble makers asking for special privileges. A good case in point is the universal negative (and often ugly) reaction to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against deadly police brutality and racialized social control.
Yet, though Black men comprise 57-70 percent of college football players and 70 percent of NFL players (and the vast majority are between the ages of 15 and 34), college and professional football remain silent on issues like racism, police brutality, and the death of unarmed black citizens.
If there’s any realm in which the color line should have disappeared by now, it should be professional sports, where measures of achievement are clear-cut, empirical, numerical, and uncontested. Still, race matters in sports and not in the way perceived by many. Sports is an arena that is perceived as one of the most meritocratic, colorblind US institutions. Yet, though 78 percent of National Basketball Association (NBA) players in the 2011-12 season were black, 47 percent of the head coaches were white. By 2016, the proportion of white coaches increased to 70 percent, as seven NBA coaches were black.
Although 67 percent of the National Football League (NFL) players in the 2011-12 season were black, 78 percent of the head coaches were white. By the 2016 season, the numbers had not changed; there were still only three African American head coaches, accounting for 10 percent of NFL coaches.
The situation is not much different in college sports. 57 percent of Division I-A male basketball players were black in the 2011-12 season, but 86 percent of the head coaches were white. By the start of 2015 season, the proportion of white head coaches decreased to 78 percent.
In addition, although 57 percent of the Division I-A football players were black during the 2011-12 season, 86 percent of the coaches were white. By 2015, nearly 89 percent of the head coaching positions had gone to whites.
These discrepancies are unlikely to even out anytime soon. In some instances, in fact, they have deepened. However, Can these discrepancies be explained by the concept of merit? Perhaps the pertinent question here is whether these inequalities can be described using the conservative, “it’s up the individual” framework? I know quite a few reading this like to subscribe to that philosophy. Some may say that these head coaches got their jobs because they had the best records, for example. The evidence, however, does not support this explanation.
Up until 2001, there had been only four black head coaches in the history of the NFL. Each of them has either played or coached on a Super Bowl championship team, or was a college conference coach of the year. By contrast, as of 2001, only thirteen of the twenty-seven white NFL head coaches held this distinction. Even a cursory analysis shows that merit has little to do with the criterion of for being a head coach. the potential pool of blacks has included (to name just a few) Johnny Roland, All-American running back and Pro-Bowler who has been an assistant coach for twenty-two years; Art Shell, former Pro-Bowler with a 56-41 record as head coach of the Raiders and currently an NFL assistant coach; and Sherman Lewis, ten-year offensive coordinator for the Green Bay packers and an NFL assistant coach for twenty-nine years.
Who was chosen? One thirty-four-year-old with eleven years of coaching experience, two of which were as offensive coordinator, and a forty-two-year-old with four years experience as an NFL assistant coach and one year as a college head coach. Each of these men had been an assistant coach under Sherman Lewis, who was passed over. Also chosen as head coaches were a former head coach whose previous four years produced records of 8-8, 7-9, 7-9, and 2-6, and ten men over the age of fifty-five with an average record of 6-10. Only one member of this “old boys club” had made the playoffs the season before. All were white. It appears, contrary to the defensive posture of conservatives, race matters more than merit in hiring NFL head coaches.
According to a report released in 2002, African Americans in the NFL are the last hired and the first fired. Few of them were involved in the interview process. Since 1920, the league has hired more than four hundred head coaches and, as of the end of the 2002 season, eight of them (2 percent) have been African American. As one observer offered, “When you see a Denny Green fired after the record he has built and then not get a new job, or Marvin Lewis coach the best defense ever, win a Super Bowl and two years later not have a head job, you know something is wrong.”
Similar patterns are found in other sports. A Northeastern University study of lifetime pitching and batting averages, for example, showed that black ballplayers have to out-hit and out-pitch their white counterparts by substantial margins to win and keep their jobs. One little-known fact is that mere journeymen can have long and profitable careers as long as they are white, but among African Americans, only the very best superstars and above-average players will succeed. Perhaps this is why there are so few black baseball managers in major league baseball. Baseball typically hires managers, coaches, and front office personnel from the echelon of “good but not great” players. Because most of these players happen to be white, black ballplayers experience difficulty becoming coaches.
The interesting point to all this is that professional sports mirror the cultural patterns of the larger society. A national project looking into the hiring practices of large law firms, for example, found that black applicant s with average grades are less likely to be hired than whites with the same records. Black partners are much more likely than whites to be Harvard and Yale graduates. The “black superstar” requirement is most evident at the most prestigious law firms. As one partner at an elite Chicago law firm told researchers, his firm sets “higher standards for the minority hires than for whites. If you are not from Harvard, Yale, or the University of Chicago… you are not taken seriously.”
As these examples show, race counts heavily in the ways people in the US are treated. Being white has its advantages, and being non-white has its disadvantages. The problem of race in the United States is that people are treated differently according to the color of their skin. The most important aspect of being white, it follows, is not pigment, melanin, or skin color. Rather, it is the connection between being white and having better economic opportunities and life chances. And this as true in sports as it is in other areas of US society.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…