Many young Black athletes dream of playing in either the NBA, the NFL, the WNBA, or some other professional league. To have your name on the back of a jersey and hear hundreds of thousands of fans cheer your name is something only few get to experience.
That experience is not the same for everyone and leagues across the board are consistently failing Black athletes.
The athletic ability and success of Black athletes are well documented. From the Williams sisters to Simone Biles, Black athletes have gone above and beyond the standard set by the generation before them. Surprisingly, many athletes’ started their journey at the playground.
“In most of the schools I attended throughout my childhood, my classmates tended to be a healthy mix of all races — but at every stop, I found that Black students consistently dominated the playground,” Reagan Griffin Jr, writer for The Guardian, said.
Is this trend because of genetics? Are Black kids and people just simply athletically superior to their white counterparts?
Stereotypes such as these eventually crept its way into the higher levels of athletics. Sportswriters, commentators, and analysts gawk at how Black athletes have an inherently higher level of athletic ability.
To spectators, these stereotypes are supported by the surplus of Black athletes in major American sports leagues. In March 2021, Black athletes made up around 41% of the rosters in the five major American sports leagues. Black athletes reach the top of their respective sports, so genetics must be the reason why.
But that’s just simply not the case.
According to a 2011 study by Oregon State University zoologist Josef Uyeda, rapid changes in a population don’t continue, stay around or spread through a certain species.
In other words, just because humans are faster and stronger now doesn’t mean they will be 200, 2,000 or even 1,000,000 years from now.
“Rapid evolution is clearly a reality over fairly short time periods, sometimes just a few generations,” Uyeda said. “But those rapid changes do not always persist and may be confined to small populations. For reasons that are not completely clear, the data shows the long-term dynamics of evolution to be quite slow.”
It’s only been over 400 years since Black people were taken from their homes and sold into slavery in the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Based on the study, that’s not enough time for Black people to become genetically and athletically superior to their white counterparts.
In fact, this evolution may not even become reality.
The myth around Black athletic superiority exists because for many young Black kids, sports are the only way to achieve success.
The presence of Black people in major American sports is vast. However, when one looks at the demographics of sports like tennis, gymnastics, soccer, golf, baseball and other sports, the Black population begins to dwindle.
So much to the point that it’s clearly evident that Black people can only dominate the sports they have access to.
Take soccer for an example. The U.S. has been successful in the international arena, winning World Cups and Olympic medals. But, it cannot — nor should it — be overlooked that the rosters of these winning teams are predominantly white.
Soccer has catapulted several stars from slums and impoverished neighborhoods into stardom, but that isn’t the case in the U.S.
“The system is not working for the underserved community,” Doug Andreassen, former chairman for the U.S. Soccer Diversity Task Force, said. “It’s working for the white kids.”
America is only 31 years into its soccer boom, but little has changed in providing equitable access to the sport.
A 2013 University of Chicago study examined the effects of the pay-to-play system on American soccer. Roger Bennett and Greg Kaplan compared the background of every U.S. national men’s team member from 1993 to 2013 to NBA all-stars and NFL pro bowlers.
The results of this study may be unsurprising to few.
The players came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the U.S. average. Basketball and football players were from places that ranked lower than average on the same demographics.
Since 2008, the numbers have tightened, but the gap is still there.
Perception is key to the equity gap in soccer. Former American soccer player Briana Scurry said the sport is viewed as a “white, Suburban sport.” In fact, Scurry didn’t even know about soccer until her family moved to a suburban community.
It’s safe to say little has been done to change that perception.
Expensive equipment and fees coupled with limited access and exposure forces Black athletes to play football and basketball. That leads to a high Black population in those sports and low Black populations in the others.
From the moment people step foot into the U.S., they are told about the “American Dream —” the concept that anyone from any background can achieve success in this country. However, it’s no secret that Black people in the U.S. have limited chances to achieve the “American Dream.” From microaggressions, financial inequalities, pop culture and the education system, Black people are often forced to limit their aspirations.
Due to centuries of injustice towards African-American communities, Black kids grow up believing their options are limited. Their opportunities seem significantly smaller than their white counterparts.
It’s ok to dream about playing in the NFL, the NBA or any other professional sport. White kids dream about that, too. What’s not ok is how that dream is used — through systemic inequalities — to force Black kids into a corner. Black kids, then, become desperate to find a way to the top and for most, it’s the sport they fell in love with so long ago.
What’s a choice for white kids is sometimes the only option for Black kids.
“Whites, being the dominant group in the society, have access to all means toward achieving desirable valuables defined by the society,” Dr. Harry Edwards wrote. “Black [people], on the other hand, are channeled into one or two endeavors open to them — sports, and to a lesser degree — entertainment.”
Black athletes aren’t inherently athletically superior. There are just little options for Black kids and that needs to change.