Sports world ‘chock full’ of racial inequities

Photo by Liz Linder Karen Given

Third in a series

George Floyd’s death sparked an unprecedented racial awakening in this country as the half-year global pandemic still rages all around us. Day and night, demands to finally address racial inequalities and social justice issues took over U.S. cities and towns for several weeks. What was then out front and under the spotlight seems now to have returned to the shadows. 

The MSR sat in on numerous virtual discussions during the summer of 2020 where the panelists talked race unfiltered, uninhibited and reflective, looking at current events as well as toward the future. This multi-part series will examine some of the topics discussed on these Zoom sessions.

This week: Myth busters

We too often hear the notion that sports provide a level playing field for Blacks and other POC. But in actuality, sports is no different than any other aspect of American society—it’s chock full of racial inequities as well.

I just finished Howard Bryant’s “Full Dissidence,” one of several books read during the no-sports lockdown period this year. He devotes a chapter to what he calls “The Assumption of Competence.”

“White men afford themselves the assumption of competence,” wrote the senior writer. “As smug in the press box as they are in the front office, the classroom, and the boardroom, they assume their collective competence while assuming the incompetence of the Black and the female, spending ample time undermining the credentials and professionalism of both.

“The racial hierarchy of sports has gone largely unchanged for a century: White owners. White coaches. White media. White season-ticket buyers. Black players,” he continues. “In baseball, no Black manager has been hired who was not a former player at the big league level.

“In the NFL, two-thirds of the Black coaches who have been hired have never received a second opportunity. The average Black coach has virtually no chance to be hired in the NBA, unlike his average White counterpart.”

Submitted photo Dr. Kirsten Hextrum

To borrow from a Ray Parker, Jr. song, “Who you gonna call? Myth busters!” Bryant’s book is one of them.
NPR’s “Only A Game,” which ends production at the end of the month after 27 years, devoted a show in June and a follow-up live event on You Tube in August to how sports “actually perpetuate racial inequities in the U.S.” This columnist is a longtime faithful listener since KNOW-FM started carrying the one-hour radio show years ago. If I miss it on Saturday nights at 9 pm, I catch it on Sirius XM on Sunday nights, or of late, listen to its podcast.

The June 27 program, “Sports, Racism and The Myth of Meritocracy,” explored five main subjects. These included a March Madness study that looked at a decade of broadcasts and found racial bias on the part of broadcasters, and Whites using several sports to remain ahead. It seems that middle class and more affluent Whites are using sports traditionally not diverse, such as lacrosse, golf and tennis, to succeed at the youth levels and get partial or full college scholarships.

We later contacted and interviewed Dr. Rashawn Ray and Dr. Steven Foy on their March Madness study, and Dr. Kirsten Hextrum, who studies race and college sports on her ‘affirmative action for rich White students’ study. All three will be featured in future View columns.

The second program featured Penn State Professor Amira Rose Davis, Princeton track alumnus Russell Dinkins, and Derrick Z. Jackson, a regular contributor to ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” who along with host and executive producer Karen Given continued the discussion on racial inequity in sports.

OAG was the type of show we loved, gender-balanced, traditional and non-traditional, human interest and socially relevant stories in a narrative, long-form style that set it apart from the typical male babbling sports shows. However, Boston’s WBUR, which produces it, announced in June that it would drop the show due to lost revenue during the pandemic.

Its last original program aired August 29, and running “Best Of” shows the rest of its run. It sadly leaves another void in my sports listening menu.

“The fact that we survived and thrived for 27 years…that’s a long time for a radio show. Especially on NPR about sports,” said Given, who took over after founder Bill Littlefield, who served as host from its inception in 1993 until he retired in 2018.