African Americans in College Sports

Race and sports

Issues related to race and sports have been examined by scholars for a long time. 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. Historically other conditions existed. The relationship of race to athleticism is one issue that has been the subject of heated discussion and debate, and has been described as of "interest and importance" to those in the United States as well those in the Great Britain and Australia.

Participation and performance disparities

Various individuals, including scholars and sportswriters, have commented on the apparent overrepresentations and underrepresentations of different races in different sports. American Jews were viewed to have dominated basketball for a quarter-century during the first half of the 1900s, however, African Americans accounted for 75% of players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) near the end of 2008. 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), and 29.1% were Hispanic (not a race). Hispanic people are about 16% of the US population.

Athletes of African descent hold every major world record in running, with domination by West African runners in the shorter distance sprints and North and East Africans in the long-distance races.

White people have been reported to be dominant in the sport of swimming, as well as soccer, lacrosse, golf, tennis, auto racing. Asians have been reported to excel in martial arts.

Jane P. Sheldon, a professor of psychology at University of Michigan–Dearborn, suggests that the large proportion of black athletes in baseball, basketball, and football (which she describes as "three of the most visible and highly valued sports in the United States"), as well as the domination of black sprinters in the Olympics, has contributed to the belief that blacks are "naturally athletic".

Public views and stereotypes

For some time, early supporters of athletic competition in Europe and North America believed that people of Northern European ancestry were more athletically gifted than Asian Pacific people and other non-whites.

"Black athletic superiority"

"Black athletic superiority" is the belief by some people 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. A 1991 poll in the United States indicated that half of the respondents agreed with the belief that "blacks have more natural physical ability".

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 professional in many different fields. 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. 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.

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."

Jon Entine has argued, most prominently in his book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why we’re Afraid to Talk about It, that body type and physiology are shaped by evolution and can be correlated, somewhat loosely, to skin color. He claims that Africans from different parts of the continent have different body types and on average, excel in different sports. For example, Kenyans have won most of the cross-country races for the better part of thirty years, and East Africans who trace their ancestry to areas along the Rift Valley dominate endurance running. East Africans have a higher percentage of slow-twitch fibers in their muscles, a slighter body, longer legs, and larger lung capacities which help in endurance and long-distance running. Conversely, Western African-descended runners dominate in anaerobic sports, including sprinting. People with ancestral roots in this region of Africa have bigger, more visible muscles along with a higher number of fast-twitch fibers in their muscles. They also have less natural body fat, narrower hips, and higher levels of testosterone. Anthropologist Ian Kerr criticized Entine's hypothesis, stating that biological variation cannot be used to uphold claims of racial superiority in athletics.

Joseph L. Graves argues that Kenyans and East Africans who have done well in long distance running all have come from high-altitude areas, whereas East Africans 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 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.

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".

Chinese views

In China, the idea that genetic differences affect sports performance is widely accepted, although credible scientific studies are lacking for genetic differences. During the 2004 Summer Olympics, the People's Daily wrote that Chinese are "suited" to sports like Ping-Pong, badminton and gymnastics that require agility and technique. The newspaper reported that Chinese have "congenital shortcomings" and "genetic differences" that means they are disadvantaged at purely athletic events. The success of Hurdler Liu Xiang was explained as due to the hurdles event requiring technique, which fits with the stereotype that Chinese are disciplined and smart. Li Aidong, a researcher with the China Institute of Sports Science, said that sports coaches believe Chinese athletes could be successful in long jumping, high jumping and speed walking. But she doubted Chinese could compete in pure sprinting.

Explanations for participation and performance disparities

Physiological factors

In a 2010 paper published in , Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, and his colleagues reported that black people have a higher center of mass (i.e. shorter relative torso) that favors them in running sports and that white people have a lower center of mass that favors them in swimming. Bejan et al. cite the progression of world record holders in the men's and women's 100 meters "dash", the majority of whom are black, and the men's and women's 100 meters freestyle, the majority of whom are white. The paper reported that although Asians have lower centers of mass/longer relative torsos like whites, European whites have an advantage in swimming due to longer overall torsos.

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.

Socioeconomic factors

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. 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." According to Margolis, views regarding "buoyancy problems" of African Americans are merely part of folklore which have been passed down from generation to generation. 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.

Racial prejudices, discrimination, segregation, and integration

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 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.

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.

Major League Baseball

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

National Basketball Association

Although Japanese-American Wataru Misaka technically 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 joned several teams; they included Chuck Cooper with the Boston Celtics, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton with the New York Knicks, and Earl Lloyd with the Washington Capitols.

National Football League

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

Professional Golfers Association

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

Positions of power: coaching and administration

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". In 2000, 78% of players in the NBA were black, but only 33% of NBA officials were minorities. 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. In 2003, the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule, requiring teams searching for a new head coach to interview at least one minority candidate.

Segregated seating

In 1960, the Houston Oilers implemented a policy at Jeppesen Stadium to segregate the black fans from the white fans. 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.

Mascot controversies

The use of Native American names and imagery for sports mascots is an issue of ongoing controversy in American sports, as Native American representatives have objected to such use without explicit negotiation and permission.

Promoting racial harmony and breaking stereotypes

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 with games and sporting contests that included running, shooting, and wrestling. 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.

Portrayals in film

The films Hoosiers and Rudy have been described as memorializing the "golden age of sports" as a time of white prevalence and dominance.


Inequality in sport for the Aboriginal Australians exists due to material and political barriers.

South Africa

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

United States

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. Depending on the type of sport and performance level, African Americans are reported to be over- or under-represented. 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.

See also



External links

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