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Original Issue


An SI survey of professional athletes revealed some of the deep divisions between the races

More than 44 years have passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, yet a large percentage of the black pro athletes who responded to a survey commissioned by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED feel blacks are still treated worse than white athletes in a variety of ways:

•Sixty-one percent of the blacks believe that their salary and/or contract terms are less favorable than those of whites.

•Sixty percent think that they are not treated as well by team management as whites are.

•Seventy-seven percent feel that their chances of moving into team management after retirement are negligible.

•Seventy-three percent believe that their opportunities to endorse products are worse than whites'.

•Seventy-one percent think that black athletes have to be more talented than whites to make a pro team.

•Sixty-nine percent feel that whites get preferential treatment over blacks when it comes to filling certain key positions on the field or court.

•Seventy-seven percent believe that management in their sport is not doing enough to put blacks into coaching or field managing positions.

The survey, conducted over the past three months for SI by the Connecticut-based firm of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, was designed to reach all 2,290 players on the rosters of NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball teams. A total of 301 athletes in the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball filled out the confidential forms; of that number, 153 were white, 134 black and 12 Hispanic or Hispanic-American, and two described themselves as being of other races. Because the 13.1% response rate was low—50% is more the norm in routine mail surveys—the results do not represent a meaningful statistical measurement of the views of all professional athletes. Of course, the findings do clearly reflect the thinking of those who answered the five-page, 47-item questionnaire.

One possible explanation for the relatively sparse return is that the subject of race and sport remains a sensitive one—both to individual players and to their leagues. Another is that pro athletes are very difficult to reach. Because they travel so much and closely guard their phone numbers, it was not possible to conduct the questioning by phone, as most polling organizations do. So SI asked the public relations directors of teams in the three sports to distribute questionnaires to players. The NBA cooperated, but both the NFL and Major League Baseball discouraged its teams from lending assistance. Major League Baseball and the NFL cited policies of not distributing material on behalf of news organizations, but a spokesperson for a National League baseball team said that the commissioner's office felt the survey was "racially biased." And a source in the NFL office said the league wanted to hinder SI's efforts "for obvious reasons. They're concerned about looking bad." As a result of these reactions, many of the forms were thrown out or returned unanswered.

SI representatives then sought to distribute questionnaires directly to football and baseball players. This time, opposition was scattered. The New Orleans Saints strongly discouraged their players from taking part in the survey, and Atlanta Falcon players who received it left the questionnaires unanswered after Falcon offensive tackle Mike Kenn, the president of the NFL Players Association, expressed his objections to the questions. When asked to discuss his feelings about the survey, Kenn refused to comment.

While some players failed to fill out the form because of apathy—"Who cares?" said the New York Mets' Vince Coleman as he refused to take a questionnaire-others completed it despite misgivings. Catcher Terry Kennedy of the San Francisco Giants agreed to fill out a form but said, "Some of this stuff [in the questionnaire] can be responsible for stirring up the same things you're asking about." At the end of the questionnaire, in a section set aside for anonymous additional comments, a white baseball player expressed an opinion reflected in other such comments when he wrote, "I believe this survey you are conducting is in very bad taste. You are starting to make controversy between whites and blacks. I think the only one being racist is you!!"

The sharpest revelation to emerge from the replies to the survey was the deep disagreement between blacks and whites on the extent of racial discrimination in pro sports. While 63% of black respondents believed they were generally treated worse than whites were, a scant 2% of whites believed that this was the case—indeed, 17% of the whites declared that blacks were generally favored over whites. There was an even greater split between the races on specific instances of favoritism toward whites: Where 69% of blacks thought whites got special preference for certain key playing positions, only 8% of whites agreed; and where 71% of the blacks believed they had to be better than whites to make a team, not a single white respondent agreed.

This vast statistical disparity between the races was true in nearly every aspect of the survey. And that gap was emphasized in the dozens of anonymous comments at the end of the survey. A black football player wrote, "Black players who make too much, talk too much or don't play three times better than whites get cut." A white NFL player expressed the opposite view: "I think there are more instances of discrimination against white athletes. I have been around coaches who would take a black athlete before an equally talented white athlete any time such a comparison occurred."

A black basketball player wrote, "I've seen white players get coaching positions in the NBA and college, and black players aren't getting anything." A white baseball player: "I'm tired of hearing about minority ex-ballplayers not being given coaching jobs at the major league level without first doing things white ex-players must do—meaning coach in the minors for five or 10 years. If white ex-players must do this, why not everybody? Write about that one time!"

A black football player wrote, "White players seem to be able to get their contracts finalized faster with more money than blacks do on the team I play for." But a white baseball player said, "Management is scared of black athletes!"

Not many black athletes believe that—at least not among the ones who participated in this survey. Their perception is that, with a few exceptions, they are not getting a fair deal from management. A large majority of black respondents think that they receive lower pay and fewer endorsements, and that they have to be better athletes than whites to make it in the pros.

A number of players who answered the questionnaire also volunteered to elaborate on their opinions. San Diego Padres reliever Rich Rodriguez, a Mexican, spoke of the inequities in the treatment of talent among the white and nonwhite players: "Most minorities that make it to the majors tend to be the superstar-type player. You rarely see a minority with average talent go up to the majors—except myself. There are a lot of white guys in the majors who are hanging on to their jobs and should be gone by now."

Deion Sanders, the Atlanta Braves' outspoken outfielder, said, "If you're black and in baseball, there is no in-between. You've got to be a damn great prospect. You don't see any so-so brothers pitching. There are none in the pen or role players. You aren't going to be on the bench just drawing a salary if you're just so-so and black."

But Jerry Olsavsky, a white linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, disagreed: "They talk about no minority coaches and stuff like that and how white players are given more opportunities. I don't really see any of that. The survey asks you, Has there ever been a time where you thought a player was cut because he was black? I mean, that just doesn't happen. You're trying to get the best people on the field you can."

Perhaps even more worrisome to black athletes than the inequities they perceive as players is what they think the future holds—or, more precisely, doesn't hold—for them. They are convinced that most sports management jobs are not likely to be open to them because they are black—77% of the respondents believe this. And for once, a substantial percentage of the white athletes—43%—agrees with the blacks, saying that blacks are less likely than whites to move into team management positions.

The New York Giants' Everson Walls, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive back and a former Dallas Cowboy who is now in his 11th year in the NFL, spoke candidly about the difference between his league and the NBA: "Blacks are so predominant in the NBA. They attain higher positions. I can understand why baseball and the NFL won't let blacks in the front office or [work] as coaches. They don't want blacks to be prominent. They make it so difficult in the NFL for blacks to get ahead. No matter how many times I go to the Pro Bowl, no matter how many Super Bowls I'm in, no matter how much money I make, when it's all said and done, I'm a black man. A nigger."

However, black athletes indicate that racism may be on the wane in the locker room, on the playing field and even in the stadium. Only 17% of black respondents think their current team has a racial problem. Only 36% report having heard racial slurs from whites during games, and 52% say they have never heard them. Only 27% believe that blacks enjoy less fan support than whites. Among all athletes polled, 53% said they socialized an equal amount of time with team members of both races.

What are we to make of all this? Supersensitive as big league sport may be about the volatile subject of racism, it remains a powerful presence in America. Marcus Allen, the Los Angeles Raider running back, spoke with great feeling after he replied to the survey: "I think racism is at its highest point since the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. I would call it our cancer. There is definitely a lack of awareness and a lack of education. We're not only talking in sports, but in every segment of society. People aren't going to let it get swept under the rug."