Friday, June 4, 2010

21st century view of race and sports

I've had this post as a draft since the NFL draft in April and just haven't gotten around to it. Reading up the players that were drafted I noticed some discussion on the sports sites in reference to Toby Gerhart, Gerhart was drafted in the 2nd round, and a lot of the discussion was due to the fact that Gerhart was white and the bias that goes against white players being slower.

I haven't seen Gerhart play and have no idea how fast he is, but the discussion did make me start thinking about the issue of race in today's world of sports.

Race is always such a touchy subject, for years many minorities had to strive to move beyond stereotypes that were associated with them and for the last 20 years of following sports, I think there's been a fair amount of progress in this regard. My question is have we just replaced old habits with new ones or have is there a trend that might provide some insight into differences in genetics that maybe it's time we start acknowledging?

I don't intend to try and figure out which it is, but to possibly further the discussion.

Here are some of the questions I have.

Are Caucasians slower then African Americans? Based on the offensive skill positions in football you could make a reasonable assumption that it is the case. It's certainly the stereotype for sports in general (baseball, basketball, and football). I just wonder whether it's actually true or not. The lack of Caucasian skill position players could be as simple as coaches at lower levels not assigning them to those positions based on this assumption, making the pool of players for the pro leagues much smaller. (This is a similar situation that African Americans had with quarterbacking and coaching, if they aren't selected/allowed at the lower levels to man those positions, how are the pro leagues going to select them? As that myth was displaced and focus was put on correcting it, we've seen an increase in African Americans in coaching and quarterbacking).

Are African American's inherently better at basketball? Are the reasons that the NBA is dominated by African Americans due to genetics, social impact, or bias? I found this link that shows the breakdown by race of the leagues. (I have no clue as to whether it's accurate or current, but based on it being fairly close to what I would guess it's the best I have. The chart shows the NBA is made up of approximately 75% African Americans, I have no doubt that a lot of this is due to the integration the NBA has done with that culture and I believe that MLB suffers from these discrepancies for similar reasons for Caucasian and Latino players, the question I have though is, are these numbers purely due to that integration or are there other reasons that the leagues are dominated by the majority race?

My guess for Major League baseball is that the due to the sport requiring a fair amount of equipment and a good percentage of the African American population cannot afford it for their children that the imbalance is due more toward cultural integration and social economic issues. I also make this assumption on the fact that there have been a fair number of Superstars in the Major Leagues that were African American, however in comparison to the NBA, I'm not sure outside of Larry Bird (possibly) that there have been many if any Caucasian players considered the best at their time in the game once it was integrated. (Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds (even sans Growth Hormone), and CC Sabathia all immediately jump to mind as superstar caliber players.)

So I pose the question why aren't Caucasians as good in basketball? Is it purely due to the fact that African Americans play much more basketball when they are younger, or is it due to bias that Caucasian players are slow, which means less 'organized' opportunity at the lower levels? There are a couple of Caucasian stars in the NBA and even one or two that don't have the 'slow' label applied. Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. are all star caliber players, but even then outside of Nash and Nowitzki, I can't think of any bona-fide stars. Given that many of the NBA's Caucasian stars have European backgrounds gives credence to the fact theory that it's more about the opportunity of playing earlier then genetic skills, but if that was solely the case, why do we seem to have so many African American and Caucasian players that are technically proficient in college that go undrafted as they don't have the measurables?

Combining the two points, African American far outnumber Caucasians at NFL skill (speed) positions and in the NBA, is it a reasonable assumption that the African American population is more athletic in general then the Caucasian population? If so does it mean anything? As I said earlier I don't claim to have an answer and I'm not even sure there is one, but I thought I'd write about it. I realize that there is a good deal of reason why we never visit the subject of 'actual' genetic differences, as there are those that would utilize any discovered differences in a hateful manner.

The question then becomes what if there are differences and if so do they matter? Maybe they don't, maybe it's just best that we work to rid the bias of the past where we call out racism where we see it. Maybe we live in a world where information like this is doomed to be utilized negatively for personal gain or small minded agendas. I'd like to think that some of the efforts over the past 20 years to identify and correct misconceived stereotypes would allow us to move forward more intelligently once we worked to erase some of those issues, but I realize that's likely a bit of a pipe dream.

Who knows though maybe we will evolve into a society that can have these open and unbiased discussions, and maybe there's something to benefit from doing so, after all without this type of thinking would it have been discovered that there is a pre-disposition to sickle cell anemia for African Americans?

Thanks for taking the time if you read through this, I realize I'm likely all over the place in some of my thoughts in the matter although I tried to tighten them up as much as possible. I have new appreciation for authors and reporters that take on large subjects and keep the subject from jumping around to too many possibilities. My hope is that I covered the topic objectively though, as discussing such a highly combustible subject can be quite a challenge and I wanted to do it fairly.

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