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All the people are just like me—in my neighborhood, in my organizations, and where I recreate. White. The situation is quite different a few miles away.

segregated american sports

It’s a portrait of America: White here, mostly Not White there, and without much difference in-between.

America’s quasi-segregated state isn’t necessarily a preferred outcome. But no matter how hard we try, we always seem to return to where America was, which (let’s face it) is the way America is. Case in point: as America becomes more diverse, a recent headline read, America’s public schools are becoming more segregated.

America’s sports are no different. Certain sports are dominated by White players (e.g., golf, tennis, and hockey). Other sports include a majority of African American players (e.g., college/pro football and basketball). And an obstacle still—even after all these years of struggle—is African Americans breaking into White-dominated sports.

Go to any major college or pro football or basketball game. Who’s playing on the field? Who’s watching in the stands? The answers are as clear as black and white.

Yes, there’s considerable diversity in White-dominated sports, but it comes primarily from overseas. For example, Asian players dominate the Ladies Professional Golf. Eight of the top 10 players in the most recent Rolex World Rankings come from Pacific Rim countries. But since its founding in 1950, only eight African-Americans have participated on the LPGA tour. The numbers aren’t much better on the men’s Professional Golf Association tour. Since 1929, fewer than 30 African Americans have played on the tour.

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The numbers in “America’s Pastime” follow the same pattern. On Opening Day 2018, major league rosters included 254 international players from over twenty countries—30% of all players. But the percentage of African Americans in major league baseball this year is under 8%—about the same level it was in 1958.

Organized athletics is trying to bring more African Americans into White-dominated sports. An array of golf associations have been working for over twenty years to entice diverse youth to take up the game. Pro baseball wants to recruit more people-of-color to assume front-office positions. And we know that segregation in sports isn’t hardwired as it once was—when separate leagues existed and racial border crossings were prohibited.

But while structural (de jure) segregation is gone, functional (de facto) segregation persists. Go to any major college or pro football or basketball game. Who’s playing on the field? Who’s watching in the stands? The answers are as clear as black and white.

Functional segregation isn’t anything new, either. In my youth there were so-called “gentleman’s agreements” in college football and basketball. Those informal pacts restricted competition between teams (e.g., don’t play football against schools with African Americans on the roster) and during games (e.g., don’t play more than three African American basketball players at a time).

In society, as in sports, we’ve made progress breaking down some walls, but we’ve erected other walls that aren’t always easy to see.

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The result? We’re not where we need to be. We're nowhere even close.

Frank Fear