Race and Sport in the 1990s

Progress has been made in breaking down racial barriers in American athletics, especially on the fields and courts; but too many positions in sports management still have 'Whites Only' signs on the doors

By , Richard E. Lapchick is the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and author of "Five Minutes to Midnight: Race and Sport in the 1990s."

IN 1987, 40 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, white America believed that sport was a place where equal opportunity existed.

However, Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis changed all that in April 1987 with his remark on "Nightline" that blacks might not have "the necessities" to be big league managers or general managers. The sports press, which rarely surfaced stories on race in sports, finally took a penetrating look at the situation.

There have been changes since that often quoted broadcast. Leadership in sport is partially responsible for what has gotten better. It now seems that a new, more humanistic sports system is possible with the reinvigorated NCAA Presidents Commission, the work of the Knight Commission, Dick Schultz's leadership at the NCAA, and that of David Stern and Paul Tagliabue at the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.

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But racial tensions have increased in the 1990s. These are frightening issues for minorities in this country. Our children have learned to hate. The Reebok Foundation and Northeastern University commissioned a Lou Harris survey of youth attitudes toward racism in September 1990. The results were shocking.

A majority (57 percent) of high school students have seen or heard racial confrontations with overtones of violence, significantly more than had been previously believed. These incidents were not isolated to any particular area and were commonplace in the nation's high schools.

One in four students say they have been the target of an incident of racial or religious bias. Almost half (46 percent) of the blacks surveyed said this.

When confronted with a racial incident, 47 percent of students would either join in or feel that the group being attacked deserved what it was getting. Only one in four would tell a school authority. Encouragingly, a core 30 percent of high school students say they would intervene to stop or condemn the incident.

This climate makes the symbolic importance of sport all the greater. Unfortunately, no one is in the position to propose changes that would totally eliminate racism in sport. Since sport free of racism can exist only in a society free of racism, the new breed of sports leaders can take us only so far.

Some, but certainly not enough, has changed for today's black athlete since sports integration began with Jackie Robinson.

April 6 was National Student-Athlete Day, a day to look at the situation of the student-athlete in America. In college sport, we are finally aware of the academic problems of not only black athletes but of all athletes. There has been progress over the 1980s with a 33 percent increase in the graduation rates for blacks.

But progress is relative. Black athletes still graduate at half the rate of whites (27 versus 54 percent). They are overrepresented in basketball and football, where they make up 56 and 37 percent of the players, while only 10 percent of all athletic scholarships go to blacks. On campus, black athletes are mentally and sometimes physically separated from other black students and have few black mentors on campus (2 percent of faculty and 3 percent of athletic department staff are black). Black student-ath letes have absolutely unrealistic expectations of making the pros (44 percent believe they will make it versus the 1 in 10,000 high school athletes who do. They have a long fall back to society if they don't make the pros or get a degree.

There are more - but not enough - black head coaches in college (47 out of 1,165 positions in men's and women's basketball, football, and baseball). Less than 5 percent of the assistant coaches in those sports are black, and only 1 percent of America's Division I athletic directors are black. Positional segregation in college is all but a thing of the past. There no longer exists a widespread quota system dictating that a certain number of whites need to be on the team (80 percent of the starters in the NCAA basketball tournament were black).

IN pro sports, progress includes increasing numbers of blacks playing basketball (75 percent in the NBA) and football (60 percent in the NFL). There have been increased endorsement possibilities for black superstars (Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson cracked the historically all-white Top 10 endorsers). There is near salary parity between blacks and whites. We rarely hear complaints about racial quotas for teams. There has been a diminishing of positional segregation in football at quarterback and center and

in baseball at shortstop and second and third bases. However, positions of pitcher and catcher are still white dominated. There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of black coaches (six this year) and general managers (five) in the NBA. Finally, there have been small but significant gains for black managers in baseball and the first modern-day black head coaches in the NFL. There is even black ownership in the NBA. The offices of the commissioners in all three sports are well integrated, but the fr ont offices of the teams in the NFL and Major League Baseball are still predominantly white outposts.

In the 1960s, it took the courage of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics to force us to examine racism in sport. In the 1980s, it took the ignorance of Al Campanis. Continued changes in the racial politics of sport are critical, since sport is an important symbol in the 1990s, a decade when racial violence in society appears to be increasing. Race-hate acts increased 149 percent between 1987 and 1990, while anti-Semitic acts were up 171 percent. If sports are to lead the way, there w as never a better or more necessary time for action.

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