Sunday, December 16, 2007

The color of sports

I just caught the tail end of a schmaltzy Kevin Costner baseball film, For Love of the Game. I've never seen it before, and while I mainly caught the climactic moment at film's end (is it giving it away to say that he wins both game and girl at the end of the film? I said it was a Kevin Costner baseball movie, right? So this shouldn't come as a surprise) the glance at both dugouts, the field, and the staduim reveals something I've thought about major league baseball for a while: it's largely a white sport.

While I don't actually follow baseball myself, for some reason I really like baseball films--there's something about the narrative arc that coheres around baseball that makes for a good story (and is someone somewhere teaching a film course or American studies course on the baseball films of Kevin Costner, because that's definitely an arc, where you start with the young and cocky Costner in Bull Durham, you have middle-aged Costner in Field of Dreams, cocky but a family man, you have older Costner in For Love of the Game who is cocky but recognizing that he's a 50-something actor playing a 40 year old Major League pitcher, and then you have The Upside of Anger where he is a washed-up former baseball player--but of course still cocky to the end).

Where was I?

Yes, baseball films--they seem to portray mainly white protagonists with white love interests (Mr. Baseball that AWFUL film with Tom Selleck in Japan not-withstanding) and with largely white fans.

Yet baseball has also seen a rise of players from Japan and Latin American countries and Latino players. But still not a huge influx of Asian AMERICAN ball players, and certainly less African American players than in other sports, like basketball or even football.

So why? Why does baseball seem to be a largely white sport? Is it? Is this my own preconception based on Hollywood movies or is this a reality? And either way, why are there so few Asian American ball players--if Japan manages to send over some pretty incredible players, how come we haven't seen a rise of Asian American ball players? And why do certain sports seem to attract people of different "races" more (and less) predominantly than others? Basketball seems to have a higher concentration of black players, hockey looks like a white sport, golf is certainly still a white sport (or a game for those who don't believe having a caddy and chasing a small ball qualifies as a sport) despite Tiger Woods dominance (and Vijay Singh and KJ Choi's presence--which is a good reminder to us that Woods has been in the PGA for over a decade and yet not one other major golfer of color from the U.S. has come up in the ranks).

Perhaps a different way to ask the question is, why, with the exception of basketball (and maybe football), do all other spectator sports (baseball, soccer, NASCAR, hockey, golf) see to be dominated by white players and white fans?


Lesboprof said...

Okay, so here are my completely uninformed, non-sports-knowing suggestions...

I have been told that more lower-income kids play basketball because it is the cheapest sport... one basketball, one or two goals, available in all urban neighborhoods. So, because more kids of color live in lower-income neighborhoods, it is most likely the sport most kids of color have access to playing throughout their childhoods.

NASCAR and golf are historically associated with poor white conservative Southerners and rich white conservative Northerners, respectively. Both have a history of racial exclusion, but in racing, you can build your own car from used parts... getting access to a set of clubs and greens is more challenging.

Baseball is clearly historically racially segregated, and there is some hangover from that in the national imagination. Yet, as you say, more kids from different races and ethnicities have played and that results in more diverse adults playing in the pros. You still need cash for gloves and a bat, but T-shirts or uniforms often have sponsors.

NHL is mostly the purview of cold cold places, which tend to be populated by more whites.

I see soccer as the most likely contender for increasing or enhancing diversity in US sports. Immigration to the US has enhanced the focus on soccer, which is so popular internationally, at the same time as US successes in soccer are getting the public more excited about it. And again, only one ball is needed, and makeshift nets are usable.

Jennifer said...

Thanks Lesboprof--I like your sociological breakdown and it does seem to ring true. I've actually posed this to a friend who is an academic and who is a big sportsfan (and athlete) and he has sort've echoed similar observations.

And when I've posed the question about Asian Americans and athletics, he surmises (and it's all conjecture on his part) that a lot has to do with Asian American family expectations/cultural norms. That a lot of Asian American families don't necessarily promote their kids to excel in athletics to the point where they could be playing in pro teams.

But I guess what I'm wondering is does the NBA offer us an example where we can see, in the future, other sports becoming more "mixed"--and although I'd love for it to be soccer/football (as the rest of the world refers to the sport with the black & white ball that you kick on a field) I don't know if it will ever catch on in the way that the Big 3 (football, basketball, baseball) have dominated the media, pro-leagues, and college leagues. So will baseball start to go the way of basketball and, perhaps, offer us the most "diverse" pro-sports arena yet? The most egalitarian (in terms of cost of the ticket, which is still affordable) as well as accessible? I think I'll believe it when I start to see a lot of Asian American athletes on the baseball diamond.

CVT said...

As an avid sports fan (and one-time athlete) - and a mixed Asian-American one at that - I think I can say a thing or two about this one.

Lesboprof hit the nail on most of it. In a nutshell - if the sport is cheaper to play and more prevalent (a la basketball), there will be more athletes of colour. Baseball is actually a pretty diverse sport - in fact, I'd say it might be more mixed, overall, than any other (even basketball - which still has few Latino or Asian players). Hollywood movies are always much more white than reality, so I think those have just tricked you.

Hockey, golf, tennis, NASCAR - all cost more money to get into, and just aren't easily-accessible for athletes of colour.

As for where all the Asian-American athletes are - I'd say part of it is the family. But another big part is just the stereotypes and expectations put on Asian athletes. I played football in high school (in the SF Bay Area). There were a lot of Asian kids at school with me, and a few started out playing. But by the time I was a senior, most of them had quit. I think sports - although more diverse than more aspects of American life - are still highly racially-biased, and many Asian kids drop out because of that. "Asian kids don't play basketball." "Wow - a Chinese dude playing football." We hear these things constantly as kids (from everybody we play with - including other Asian kids and family), and it takes its toll by the time sports become more competitive.

Thus - a handful of Asian-American pro athletes anywhere. An interesting note is that the majority of those that DO exist (and really play) are mixed - Paul Kariya, an All-Star hockey player (white/Asian). Tiger Woods. Hines Ward, an All-Pro football player (Korean/African-American).

I'd imagine its those "other" aspects of their race that enabled them to push past the stereotypes they heard as youth to pursue higher competition (much as most of the All-Asian-American kids in my high school quit while I played on).

So many interesting questions. Somebody should do some real research on that one.

Jennifer said...

Thanks so much for your insightful comments--I think you are right--if you don't play to stereotypes you are more apt to start to hear the exceptionalism, which could be a deterent in some cases to going further with a sports career (personally, I did the whole stereotype thing for the most part in terms of my own extracurricular activities--piano, violin, tennis and badminton--and yes I actually lettered in badminton and made all league and would have tried to play competitively in college if such things were encouraged which they aren't since so many people think badminton is a joke but it's, of course, a very serious sport in many Asian countries).

I digress, as usual.

Yes, I am hoping that someone, somewhere, sometime does a study about race and sports and particularly about Asian American athletes (and mixed-race Athletes). I'm sure there is someone, somewhere working on this, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see (or if anyone knows who these people are, give us their names and their works and we'll read them!)

dance said...

I'm not sure who's doing the scholarly work on this. There's a fair amount written by journalists about race and sports. Some work may also be coming out of business schools.

Tangential: I couldn't find it online, but Sports Illustrated had an article about Hines Ward as being half-Korean, just after he helped win the Super Bowl (maybe 2002? 2004?). Called "The Long Way Home"--he took his mother back to Korea as a hero. You might find it interesting.

Jason Clinkscales said...

I ran into this blog through the RSS feed I have. There are so many different reasons why, and as I have learned over the years, to pinpoint one or two reasons is a much more difficult task than it seems. From the comments I have read, there are truths to what has been said in terms of the economics as well as the perceptions from the poor histories of the individual leagues and organizations.

There is one aspect that seems to go unnoticed, even as baseball has asked itself this question countless times. Even as I have spoken with people affiliated with Major League Baseball, they grapple with the aspect that many folks just aren't interested in baseball. There are far different entertainment options now than even ten years ago for people to latch onto, whether they watch the games or want to play them. While it seems to be a rather simple answer, when there are more people, there tend to be more options.

I'm a black kid that grew up in NYC that wanted to play baseball, but I didn't pursue it so much. I still love the game, but like many sports fans, I can love another game as well. As a freelance sportswriter, I've discussed this countless times with people and a new answer comes up every day.

By the way, I'm one of the few people, let alone blacks, who happens to think that hockey is an amazing sport (aesthetically, that is).

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your comments/observations. You're right--declining fanbase is not something I've thought about with MLB or other pro-sports. And as a sportswriter/sportsfan, you are in a unique position to really chart the rise of atheletes of color in various sports.

I have to say that personally I wouldn't consider myself a spectator sports fan of anything other than golf, which I also sheepishly admit to having an intense passion/love. I say sheepishly because I am so obviously over-aware of the elitism of golf, as well as the sexism/racism that overlays it (worse back in the day but you know as long as Augusta remains closed to women, it's a problem).

Yet I know what you mean about saying that there is something aesthetically beautiful about hockey--that's how I feel about golf--maybe because it's the one sport I do, myself play (since no one seems to want to take up badminton with me) I really do admire golfers like Woods and Furyk and Ochoa and Lee who make it look beautiful and effortless (when really, anyone who plays knows how frustratingly HARD it can be to knock that small white ball down the fairway).

Jennifer said...

Dance, thanks for the lead on Ward Hines and for the heads up about sportswriters doing articles about race and sports (Jason, any recommendations?).

Jason Clinkscales said...

There are many in the business who discuss race and sports like we breathe. Not to say anything completely disparaging about them, but sometimes, they dig too deep in that well and make assertions without any strong evidence or basis to work with.

Off the top of my head, I wouldn't be sure of where exactly to begin with that, but one of the more well known sportswriters who discussed race was Ralph Wiley, who passed away a few years ago. If you Google or at least go to and search some of his work, he discussed often without finding a way to completely anger people.

I recall reading a book early last year called 'Black Planet' by David Shields in which he basically wrote a daily journal discussing why a middle-aged white guy in Seattle would be so enamored with the NBA SuperSonics. It was humorous, sometimes a bit too personal, but altogether a worthwhile read.

I'd have to look through some of the old essays and articles I've collected over the years as well.

This was from an old team blog( I had done, but as I said, there are new ripples to this every day. This was during the 2005 World Series.

I'm happy to be a part of this conversation in whichever way, but of course, much of what I've learned has come from experience and the lessons of others.

Jason Clinkscales said...

By the way, I also recommend Bomani Jones, who used to be with ESPN. He has a website and blog that moves all over the place, but I've admired his work.

You may see the name of Jason Whitlock. While I was never a fan before he became a marked figure, he discusses race often with an extremely jaded and in many ways, spiteful point of view. While I personally would run as far away from him as possible, his name is out there.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the recommendations--it's actually quite helpful to me because I've been playing around with an idea for an American studies course on "Sports Narratives" where we would read (and watch) literature and film about sports. Things like BREAKING AWAY, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, THE GREATEST GAME EVERY PLAYED, VICTORY. Really, this is more a fantasy course, but I did think that if I were to propose such a course, i would want to also balance it out with some journalism and anthropological/sociological studies about sports (and of course race, since that's what I study/research) and also gender/sexuality (there's that film from the 80s with Mariel Hemingway about female track stars and I'm pretty sure I recall a lesbian relationship--can anyone help me out here?)

Anyway, I'll be sure to follow up with your recommendations--and thanks for being part of the conversation!

Jason Clinkscales said...

As if I haven't flooded this post already, I took a summer course at Rutgers called Sports in American Culture. Unfortunately, I can't recall the name of the professor, but I did find this.

She wasn't the professor of the course, but it may be a good sounding board.