Americans don’t think of sports as racist — we believe playing enhances character development, social skills, and physical prowess, across all social groups. It’s practically a prerequisite for being a productive citizen in society, particularly for males. But in the black community, playing sports has always offered something greater. In pre-civil rights America, the playing field was the one place that allowed blacks, especially black males, to be free, at least briefly, from the oppression of their daily lives. Now, it’s seen as their path to the American dream. Sports are among the few spaces in our society where black males receive adoration and support, as opposed to stigma and exclusion.
But the whites who control mainstream sports have long exploited black athletes — economically, psychologically, politically, and for entertainment. Playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball was a big part of my development and personal identity as a black male growing up in the 1990s. Later, I understood the racism embedded in this experience. I had teammates who were struggling academically but were still allowed to travel across the country to compete, revealing that for black males, athletic performance was valued more than their educational development. I noticed how a majority of the players were black, while the coaches, organizers, and sponsors were white. Those groups got the real benefits. We players were all sold the same dream: We could get college scholarships, maybe even play professionally. Most of us did neither.
There is a deeply seated pathology that black males are genetically predisposed to be talented athletes and less gifted in areas outside of sport and entertainment. As with my AAU teams, it is not uncommon for blacks to make up the majority of football and men’s basketball players at big-time colleges, while being a small fraction of the school’s overall student enrollment. At the kindergarten though 12th-grade level, black males are more likely to be celebrated for their athletic prowess and less likely to be selected for gifted and honors classes, let alone be recognized for their performance in these classes.
In the National Football League, the highest-grossing sports league in the United States, blacks made up 70 percent of the players in 2018, while whites occupied more than 70 percent of the coaching positions and nearly 100 percent of top executive positions. Blacks, then, are effectively relegated to being paid labor. In sociology, we call this a reinforcing condition, because it serves to perpetuate the status quo. Blacks, especially black males, are taught to see themselves only as athletes. Black neighborhoods emphasize sports as the path to respect and upward mobility. For me, despite having access to a range of positive same-race role models outside of sports, I still had to overcome the racist socialization that told me my primary worth in life as a black male was being an athlete.
Time yourself on this test: Name 10 black males who are professional athletes. Now, reset your timer and name 10 black males in occupations outside of sports or other entertainment fields.
You probably named the athletes much more quickly. In truth, a minuscule percentage of the more than 11 million adult black males in the United States are professional athletes or entertainers. But our mass media focuses on the success of the black male athlete.
Here’s another test: The next time you encounter a black male, note what adjectives first come to mind. Now, do the same for nonblack males. If the adjectives are different, ask yourself why. For the black males, did you think of stereotypes such as innately violent, deviant, criminal, intellectually inferior, hypersexual, apathetic about family and community, or, yes, athletically gifted? How would life for them be different if you viewed them in a way that was not stereotypical?
That these perceptions persist is a moral outrage. Black males are holistic human beings gifted in a multitude of areas. We can change stereotypes, and systems. Doing so will involve acknowledging and eliminating the damaging pathologies associated with black males. It will also take investment — it would be a great start if as a society we spent more on education for black males than on sponsoring youth, intercollegiate, and professional sports. Let’s make it as common for STEM programming to be funded in black and economically disadvantaged areas such as Chicago’s South Side or West Baltimore as it is in predominantly white and Asian communities in the Silicon Valley.
In addition, we need economic revitalization and sustainability plans to signal that the residents of black communities are just as valued as their counterparts in more affluent and racially dissimilar areas. Such an investment is an important way to meet the demand for reparations by African-Americans, one that helps redress one of America’s deepest sins.
Sports can be positive, even transformative. But not when they are the primary opportunity offered to an entire group of people.
Joseph N. Cooper is J. Keith Motley Endowed Chair of Sport Leadership and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent book is “From Exploitation Back to Empowerment: Black Male Holistic (Under)Development Through Sport and (Mis)Education.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.