Racial inequality in youth sports: Understanding the barriers presented to Black athletes

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 12:52pm

Halfback Willis Ward became the second Black football player for Michigan in 1932.

Halfback Willis Ward became the second Black football player for Michigan in 1932. Buy this photo
courtesy of the Michigan Daily Digital Archives, Bentley Historical Library

In the 1880s with Moses Fleetwood Walker, Michigan baseball became one of the first colleges to have a Black baseball player. In 1890, George Jewett joined the Michigan football team as a halfback — the University and the Big Ten’s first Black football player. 

Forty years and Fielding Yost passed until Michigan had another Black football player with Willis Ward, and even then he faced racial discrimination after being barred from playing against Georgia Tech for the color of his skin. Just 12 Black players played for the University prior to 1941, and those athletes had to meet a criteria of excellence. For most, including William DeHart Hubbard, that meant Olympic champion performance. The basketball program championed its lacking diversity until 1951, when Ernie McCoy finally integrated with Don Eaddy and John Codwell — three years after Bill Garrett and Indiana broke the Big Ten’s gentleman’s agreement to keep Black players off the court. And in baseball — the first sport to have a Black athlete at Michigan — from 1880 to 1972 just seven Black players lettered on varsity.

In 2019, 41.55 percent of Big Ten men’s basketball athletes were Black and 38.86 percent of football players were Black. Most other sports in the Big Ten are far from those inclusive representatives.  If men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s basketball, and football did not exist, the percentage of Black Big Ten athletes falls from 14.39 percent to 6.55 percent. The total number of Black athletes plummets from 1,628 to 512.

The Big Ten’s history is fraught with racial pioneering and foot dragging, however, the lack of Black athletes in sports outside those five competitions isn’t a byproduct of a gentleman’s agreement or overtly racial policies. It runs much deeper and subtler. 

Sprinter Willis Ward lettered four years for Michigan.

Sprinter Willis Ward lettered four years for Michigan. Buy this photo
courtesy of the Michigan Daily Digital Archives, Bentley Historical Library

David Ogden’s Welcome Theory breaks down one reason why the number of Black players going into the MLB is decreasing — Black children don’t see people that look like them play the sport. When children see people that look like them in a sport or profession, they are more likely to have aspirations in that field. In basketball and football, Black children know they won’t be singled-out for the color of their skin as often. The same can’t be said for lacrosse

In baseball — a sport ripe with racial history — the breakthrough of Jackie Robinson saw a skyrocket in Black professional baseball players, reaching as high as 27 percent of the MLB in 1975. Now, that number is down to eight percent, with the college game looking even bleaker.

Just six percent of Division 1 baseball student-athletes were Black in 2019. In the Big Ten, that number rests just under 5 percent. That’s 23 Black players. Michigan had five, and only because of a concerted effort to recruit Black players. In 2013, Michigan coach Erik Bakich’s first season, Michigan had an all-white team and all of the Big Ten had nine Black players — just seven years ago. 

There aren’t a lot of Black athletes playing baseball in college anymore, there haven’t been a plethora of Black role models in the sport for years. While suburbs and small towns can fit plenty of baseball fields, cities — where a large portion of America’s Black population resides — don’t have that same luxury. 

William DeHart Hubbard was the first Black Olympic gold medalist.

William DeHart Hubbard was the first Black Olympic gold medalist. Buy this photo
courtesy of the Michigan Daily Digital Archives, Bentley Historical Library

Beyond the Welcome Theory, another reason for the lack of diversity is that there aren’t as many scholarships available for sports outside the big three (men’s and women’s basketball and football), so potential Black student-athletes who excel at sports like swimming or tennis, yet struggle economically, can’t afford to go to college and play those sports.

In college baseball, there just aren’t enough scholarships. A maximum of 11.7 go to the baseball team, which has a roster of 35 players, and ends up only sparing athletes about 25 percent of the cost of tuition. And, until August 2020, need-based or merit-awarded scholarships counted against that total, directly affecting poorer Black athletes.

Tangentially related to scholarships is that youth sports — lacrosse, hockey, field hockey — all cost money. These sports cost hundreds to thousands of dollars a year to sign up for leagues, tournaments, uniforms and equipment, a burden that hits most middle-class families hard. But when taken into account that the median Black family in the United States earns $28,000 less than the median white family, those pay-to-play sports become nearly impossible to afford and thus, these children are never exposed to high levels of them.  

Travel ball, which is a must for any player hoping to compete in or beyond college baseball, can cost upwards of $5,000 a year from tournament fees, uniforms, hotels, equipment and so much more. 

“There are so many outstanding players of color often hidden in poor communities who just aren’t able to play on those expensive travel teams or make their rounds on the summer circuit,” Bakich told The Daily in 2019. “So when you can find those guys and target those guys and have kids from all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. … I think it’s a win not only for them and their families but also for our program and for everyone on our team, which is why we recruit the way we do.”

Third baseman Don Eaddy was selected All-American in 1955.

Third baseman Don Eaddy was selected All-American in 1955. Buy this photo
courtesy of the Michigan Daily Digital Archives, Bentley Historical Library

Not all coaches can be as proactive as Bakich, not every coach in the nation can look four hours West and see a hotbed of under-appreciated talent. There aren’t programs which subsidize tournaments or scouting camps for every sport like Chicago White Sox ACE does for baseball or Nike and Adidas do for AAU basketball. 

To get a field hockey equipment grant from The Hockey Foundation, the program you play for has to fill out an application. To play in MLS’s DC United youth academy, the highest domestic level of youth competition, you have to pay $1,500, with scholarships you need to apply for. 

It’s an issue that’s persisted since the 70s, when G. Anderson White, the first Black diver for Michigan, said in a 1972 interview with John Behee, “How many Black kids can afford to go to Florida and shell out the $80-100 a week costs? … The lack of opportunity to learn from talented coaches, coupled with a lack of pools and pool facilities for competition, therein lies the explanation for so few Black swimmers.”

And still, even with the ACE program and a proactive mentality, Michigan baseball played its 2020 season with just five Black players on its roster. The men’s basketball program — with a roster less than half the size of baseball’s — had seven. 

Today, the reason for lack of diversity isn’t nearly as explicit as it was during the first half of the 20th century. No coach can deny a player a place on their team solely because of the color of their skin, or say that the problems their skin color brings outweigh their talent. Instead, like the broader issue of inequality, it’s an institutional issue rooted in economic and demographic barriers that prohibit Black children from exposure to high levels of sport that White children take for granted.