Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Race to the Finish

I wanted to tackle the issue of race in sports in a couple of ways. First, Tiger Woods won another major championship last weekend in his seemingly inevitable march toward Jack Nicklaus' record. It was another dominating performance by Tiger and I'm sure CBS reaped the benefit of Tiger being atop the leader board. The questions was raised by someone, as it practically always is, about Tiger's effect on African American participation in Golf. What exactly has been the effect of Tiger's domination on black Americans? Secondly ESPN's Outside the Lines had a show devoted to the dwindling number of African Americans in baseball. The percentage, which once topped out at about 20% has shrunk to 8%. The question is why has this happened and what can be done to reverse the current trend.

Tiger has increased the viewership of golf by African Americans, but he does the same to white Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Eskimos. Tiger brings people to the TV set. The effect among blacks is probably greater than the other ethnicities, but it is felt across the board. Tiger has done clinics for inner city kids and he has the standard "famous athlete charities", but has he made a difference as far as African American participation in the sport. I would have to say the difference in negligible. Golf is all about access. The easiest way to play golf is to be a member of a country club and play on a private course. That, of course, costs a lot of money and membership is obviously limited. So his effect at the country club level would be practically zero. There are, however, a lot of public courses around the country and that in theory would allow everyone has a chance to play. Most public courses are in suburban areas. They are not readily accessible to urban dwellers. Kids without cars would have practically no chance to get to a golf course. If they did manage to make their way to a course, they would have to then compete for tee times with everyone else who isn't a country club member. There is also the cost of clubs and greens fees which all add up to a lot more than buying a basketball and heading to the local court. Tiger has done day clinics at public courses and driving ranges for inner city kids, but after he's gone, I don't think that there is any long term effect. The courses aren't any closer and the cost isn't any less. If you've watched any golf on TV lately you'll also notice that the makeup of the galleries hasn't changed either. The "Tiger effect" can be seen in the TV ratings but for all intents and purposes, that's the extent of his influence.

Baseball faces a similar problem which is access. Baseball fields are basically non existent in urban areas. Real estate is far too valuable to be "wasted" on a baseball field. Urban kids can't readily get to a baseball field to play. Plus it requires 18 people to play a baseball game. That means that unless there is some sort of supervised league to play in, the game simply isn't played. Baseball has become, like golf, a suburban sport. In the suburbs there are well manicured field and easy access for kids to play in leagues. In the city, kids face a lot of blacktop, which is great for basketball, but not quite as comfortable for baseball. I don't believe that we've reached a crisis point for baseball among blacks in America. The percentage of participation has dropped, but that has a lot to do with how kids are scouted for major league teams. Teams spend millions of dollars in scouting for Latin American players, but they barely spend anything on scouting for urban players.

Today, the majority of major league players are drafted out of colleges and high schools. Teams aren't particularly interested in fostering growth of the game in the inner cities. Major League Baseball does have a program in place to try and grow the game in the cities, but the money spent on that program pales in comparison to the money spent scouting kids playing in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The participation level of African Americans at the major league level will probably bounce back at some point as the levels of blacks in the suburbs increases. However, the inner city is probably lost forever as a major supplier of players to the Major Leagues.

The last thing I want to discuss is whether today's athletes have a responsibility to their community to help affect some change, whether it's in participation in the sport or social change. There was a time (I think it was called the 60's), when black athletes spoke out about political and social issues which affected their community. They felt an obligation to try and affect some change on society (Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem, Bill Russel, Rafer Johnson, Curt Flood and a whole host of others) and in doing so they actually helped pave the way for today's athletes.

Today's star black athletes are corporations. The bottom line is the bottom line. Michael Jordon has make hundreds of millions of dollars by selling his image. His biggest contribution to urban youth is convincing them that spending $150 on sneakers is a good thing. Jordan didn't grow up in the inner city, he grew up in suburban North Carolina. Whatever racism he experienced growing up was subtle and personal not overt and institutionalized. He grew up wanting the American dream of money that so many of us aspire to. He never felt the need to help the black community. The same can be said of Tiger Woods. He also grew up in the suburbs. His father once said that Tiger would change the world. I don't think Tiger has those kinds of aspirations. His goal is to be rich and happy. And he's definitely got the rich part down. He is going to be the first athlete to surpass $1 billion in earning. Derek Jeter is another suburban kid. He does have the requisite charitable organization (I believe it's called "Turn Two"), but for the most part he does all his talking on the field. Derek has never even taken a stand on the steroids issue, which directly affects the game that he plays. Let's not even get into Barry Bonds or Mike Tyson. Today's athletes stand as the legacy of the athletes from the 60's. They have gotten the benefits from the struggles of those who came before them and are basically living the "dream".

Ultimately, I don't believe that athletes bear any special obligation to try and affect change in their "community". Athletes are in the public eye because of their athletic gifts, not because they have anything important to say. Take Curt Schilling for example. He felt the need to lend his support to President Bush and the war against Iraq. Curt Schilling is a junior college dropout. Do we really need to hear his views on politics? I don't think so. Tiger, Jordan, Derek Jeter, etc. may not have anything to say either. And if they did have anything to say, why should we listen? Do they need to be positive role models for kids? As far as I can tell they are positive role models for kids. They are rich, successful athletes and businessmen. I can't think of a more positive role model. Should they be doing more for inner city kids? They could do more, but they shouldn't have an obligation to do so. They aren't politicians or crusaders. They are just athletes. Athletes like Ali and the times he lived in don't come along very often. Ali didn't set out to be a symbol, he just wanted to box. The situation was trust upon him and he rose to the occasion, but if there were no Vietnam war and no draft, he would never have had that opportunity. He would have just been a polarizing figure for his involvement with the Black Muslim movement.

Race is always going to play a part of everything in America but it should not be the defining issue of sport? Kids will play whatever is easiest for them to play. Currently that means basketball in the urban centers. Will that change? I don't know and I'm not sure that it needs to change. So in the end, will Tiger Woods change the world? Probably not, but I also don't think that he needs to.

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