What do you do for a living?" Each time Kevin Little hears the question, he suffers a small crisis. He would love to say straight out, "I run fast. I am a sprinter." But Little is tired of facing disbelief, tired of the skeptical sputter that always follows such a statement. So he often just mentions his part-time job for U.S. West and moves on. Why bother?
"People do not understand," Little says. "They look at me like, But you're white."
Little is one of the fastest men in the world. His winning time of 20.40 seconds at the world championships in Paris last March tied the American indoor record in the 200 meters. That victory--over a field that lacked world-record holder Michael Johnson but included 1997 outdoor world champ Ato Boldon--made him the first white American since 1956 to win a major international sprint title. At 29, Little is in his prime, but the confidence he displays took too long to earn. That's because, aside from suffering the usual self-doubts, he matured in an age when the white sprinter is about as common as the horse and buggy.
He tries not to let this bother him, but it is fact: None of the 25 fastest times in the 100 and only one of the 25 fastest in the 200 was run by a white man. Of the 14 track and field gold medals won by U.S. men at the Atlanta Olympics, just one--Randy Barnes's in the shot put--was won by a white. It's strange, being a human blip, but Little suspects he is only the most glaring anomaly on the American sports landscape. Every year he notices fewer white faces in big-time sports. He scans the sports pages, watches games, talks to white kids and parents. "In basketball and football, and other sports too, the interest isn't there anymore," he says.
Little trains in a tired antique of a gym at the University of Colorado. He glides over a 60-meter straightaway time and again, and he hops up the wooden steps on one leg, then the other. The place is empty. He works alone. His steps echo through the dim light, and you can see why he wonders if he is some kind of anachronism, walking point for a dwindling tribe. "Where is the white athlete going?" he says.
The white athlete is getting out. The white athlete--and here we speak of the young men in team sports who ruled the American athletic scene for much of the century--doesn't want to play anymore. Distracted by other leisure-time pursuits and discouraged by the success of black athletes, who have come to dominate sports in spectacular fashion, the white athlete is now less interested in playing certain mainstream games, most notably basketball and football, than are his black counterparts. He is increasingly drawn to sports that in the U.S. are played primarily by whites, such as soccer, or to alternative athletic pursuits that are overwhelmingly white, such as mountain biking or rock climbing. After a six-month SPORTS ILLUSTRATED inquiry into the subject of race and sports, including dozens of interviews with coaches, athletes, executives and academics and a nationwide poll of 1,835 middle school and high school kids, all indications are that the white athlete will continue his steady fade.
Should anyone care? A century ago a New York City newspaper editor all but shrieked in print, "We are in the midst of a growing menace. The black man is rapidly forging to the front in the ranks of athletics...we are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy." But 50 years after Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier, white Americans have come to embrace black sports heroes in ways unimaginable in 1947. That a white majority calmly accepts minority status in one of its most cherished social institutions is itself a measure of progress, and the appeal of a Michael Jordan across racial lines is unquestioned.
"In 1960, if white girls in the suburbs had had posters of a Negro that dark on the wall, there would've been hell to pay," says black social critic Stanley Crouch. "That kind of racial paranoia is not true of the country now. Today you have white girls who are Michael Jordan fanatics, and their parents don't care."
Robinson ushered American sports into an era of significance beyond the playing field. During the next two generations, the once monochromatic world of team sports became a paradigm of, and sometimes a spur to, racial equality. One milestone followed another: Larry Doby broke into the American League several months after Robinson's debut; the NBA and the NFL were completely integrated; a Texas Western basketball team with an all-black starting lineup beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky squad in the 1966 NCAA final; that same year the Boston Celtics' Bill Russell was named the first black head coach of a major professional team; the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams in 1988 became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Management was still firmly white--and, regrettably, remains so today--but one could argue that the playing field had become the nation's common ground, the one highly visible stage on which blacks and whites acted out the process of learning to live, play and fight together as peers.
Today fewer whites stand on that common ground. Black players became a majority in the NBA in the mid-1970s and now fill 80% of the league's roster spots. In the NFL 67% of the players are African-Americans, and blacks hold such a strong lock on the skill positions of defensive back, wide receiver and running back that their near monopoly resembles the onetime white stranglehold at quarterback. In major league baseball the black presence isn't nearly as pronounced--17%, with Latinos (many of whom are also black) now making up 20% of the players--yet during the past 25 years, blacks have been a disproportionate offensive force, winning 41% of the Most Valuable Player awards.
This domination shows up at the high school and college levels as well. Sixty-one percent of Division I college basketball players are black, and of the 15 members of USA Today's 1997 All-USA high school basketball team, only two were white. Division I college football, meanwhile, is almost 52% black, and last year's 25-member All-USA high school football team included just two whites, the punter and the placekicker.
In December of last year at the Orange Bowl, recruiters filled the press box for Dade County's annual high school football all-star game, the showcase for what many believe is the richest vein of talent in the country. Of the 81 players who took part, only three were white.
"An athlete is an athlete, but, dang it, there just seem to be more black athletes than white," says Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. "We've got a [white] phenomenon on our team, a quarterback named Danny Kendra, whose vertical jump is 39 1/2 inches--more than anybody else we've got. He bench-presses 425 pounds, and his leg press broke the school record. He runs a 4.5 40. But there ain't many like him. And my thinking is that there's a whole lot more blacks who can do that than white guys."
Kendra isn't alone in defying athletic stereotypes. Wayne Chrebet is the New York Jets' most reliable wide receiver. The New York Giants' Jason Sehorn, the only white starting at cornerback in the NFL, runs a 4.4 40 and led his team with five interceptions last season. In 1996 Los Angeles Clippers forward Brent Barry became the first white to win the Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Weekend. At a time when sports have reached an unprecedented level of importance in American life, however, these are rare exceptions.
Whites have in some respects become sports' second-class citizens. In a surreal inversion of Robinson's era, white athletes are frequently the ones now tagged by the stereotypes of skin color. The twist: Whites themselves are doing much of the tagging. They are more and more often choosing sports in which they feel they can still compete--baseball, ice hockey, in-line hockey--thereby perpetuating a cycle. White athletes, outplayed or simply intimidated, stop playing basketball or football; examples of college and pro success by whites become more scarce; the sport loses some of its appeal for the next generation of white kids.
A comparison between SI's youth poll, which was conducted by the New York City-based Peter Harris Research Group and Louis Harris, and a similar survey conducted in 1990 reveals that in the last seven years the gap has widened between black and white participation in high school basketball and football. Some 40% of the black high school students in the SI poll said they participate in basketball, compared with 15% of the whites. In football 21% of the blacks participate, compared with 15% of whites.
NCAA figures on white participation in Division I college football and basketball are revealing as well: From 1984 to '90--the most recent period for which figures are available--the number of white freshmen on scholarship for football dropped 22%; the number dropped 11% in basketball.
"I'm told by lots of coaches that you can't get white kids to go out for basketball teams in urban areas," says Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. "If you're fielding a team in Boston, the white kids just aren't going to go out, whether they can make the team or not. I hear that around the country, too."
"White parents are starting to guide their kids away from certain sports," says Thomas Elkins, who coached track at racially mixed John Marshall High in Cleveland for 18 years before retiring in 1995. "In the first three years of busing at my school [1978 to '80], I had 30 kids, and I was determined to maintain a mixed team. The first year it was 15-15, and we had a great time. But after the third or fourth year, it started going more and more black. And I'd ask white kids, 'Why don't you come out?' They'd say, 'Aw, I can't run with those guys.' Then around baseball season we'd joke: 'Did you know there were this many white kids at this school?' Because that's all you'd see out for baseball. Same thing with basketball: Three or four white kids out for the team, and that's it; but for baseball and wrestling there'd be tons of 'em."
While the SI poll did not find a shattering of self-confidence among young white males, it did reveal cracks: Some 34% of them agreed that "African-American players have become so dominant in sports like football and basketball that many white athletes feel they cannot compete at the same level." Fully one third of white males in the poll believe that blacks are more aggressive in sports, and nearly a third believe blacks are simply bigger and stronger.
The poll indicated dramatically divergent views on athletics and race, which reflect an increasingly polarized sports culture. The responses revealed that while many young whites are unsure of their place in athletics, young blacks, brimming with self-confidence and certain that sports are one of the few professions in which they can make it big in America, are pouring heart and soul into team sports. This is no surprise to longtime observers who have noted two vastly different attitudes on the playing field. "Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it," says William Ellerbee, basketball coach of national power Simon Gratz High in Philadelphia. "Inner-city kids look at basketball as a matter of life or death."
White kids in search of a new athletic niche are casting a wide net. Whites in the SI poll cited 33 sports--compared with 20 among blacks--that they themselves are best at, and a substantial plurality of white males (46%) agreed that "white athletes are turning their attention to new sports...partly because they can make breakthroughs in these sports that they are less likely to make in major sports."
"The white kid has found other things to do," says Carlos Cespedes, president of the Dade County Coaches Association and an assistant football coach at Miami's Palmetto High. "My school is very affluent, and our enrollment is only 17% black. But our football team is usually 50-50. Why? A lot of the white kids wouldn't bother doing the work we require of our football players. They're skiing in Colorado. They're flying over to Europe. I go to every national convention. I hear the same thing from the coaches: The white athlete is not as hungry as the black athlete. Period."
Of course, the differences Cespedes cites are socioeconomic and cultural, not inherently racial; given the opportunity, a black teen might also choose to ski in Colorado rather than play football. But that option is not as widely available to blacks as it is to whites. More than 40% of black children in the U.S. live below the poverty level, compared with 16% of white children.
All of which leads to a question that's often at the heart of the discussion of race and achievement: Does one group outperform another because of innate ability or outside influences? Is it nature or nurture (page 52)? Cespedes chimes in with those who argue that, in this case, economic forces are responsible--that black males, like some Italians and Irish in the first half of the century, are using sports as a way to a better life. SI's poll found that young African-American males see sports as a rare opportunity for advancement: Some 51% of them agreed that blacks "care more about sports because sports are one of the few ways in America that blacks can make a lot of money," and by almost a 3-to-1 margin over whites they said that one of the most important reasons to play is "If I am successful at sports, I can make a lot of money."
But many people find it hard to believe that economic incentives alone account for black athletic dominance. These observers offer a simple theory: Blacks dominate sports because they are faster, quicker, better. "If you want a gauge, go to the track meets," says Bowden. "Who's winning all those track meets?" Certainly there is a chuckling acceptance, among both blacks and whites, of the inability of whites to leap high and run fast. It's not that whites won't play anymore, the thinking goes: It's that they can't.
Though open discussion of inherent black athletic superiority remains taboo, few deem it offensive to joke about "white man's disease" or to make a movie called White Men Can't Jump. When tennis player Jim Courier, in a press conference at this year's U.S. Open, described fellow American Chris Woodruff as "one of the fastest white guys I've ever seen," no one blinked. An exceptionally fleet white athlete such as Chrebet, Sehorn or Green Bay Packers wide receiver Don Beebe is, as Little says, "looked at as a freak of nature."
Black is best. That is the understanding in sports now: not just that blacks are the dominant racial group playing, but also that they possess superior athletic skills and have thus transformed the way sports are played. "You see better catches, runs, tackles--anything involving mobility, toughness, anything physical," Bowden says. "An [all-white] football team in the South in 1960 couldn't touch a football team today that's integrated. Couldn't even touch 'em. You ask what [blacks have] brought to the table? They've brought better athletes."
When coaches and players talk about the issue, they usually use the logic of the obvious: Open your eyes. Look around. "If 80 percent of the league is black, that means that black players are that much better than white players," says Orlando Magic center Rony Seikaly. "The black players are superior. No doubt. I go to Lebanon in the summer, and we have pickup games, and there's this one 18-year-old Nigerian playing in the Lebanese league who can touch his head on the rim. It's amazing, [blacks'] athletic ability. They're built, they're buffed. We work out to get a body like that, and they just come out naturally buffed."
Even coach Bruce Rollinson of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., whose predominantly white football team has won the mythical national high school championship in two of the last three years, concedes a physical disadvantage against a mostly black opponent. "Get ready for the speed," Rollinson tells his players. For years the coaches of Nebraska's largely white football team knew exactly what Rollinson was talking about: The Cornhuskers would fly to the Orange Bowl only to get thrashed by Miami or Florida State. In 1993, when the Big Red coaches began talking about recruiting quicker, Miami-type players for their defense, everyone understood the code: Nebraska needed more blacks. The Huskers have gotten them and have won two national titles in the last three years.
The perception of black superiority isn't found only among white coaches and players. A plurality (34%) of black males in SI's poll agreed with the statement, "Whites are not as good athletes as African-Americans." Some 42% of the black males who attend racially mixed schools said that they sensed their white peers backing off from sports because they felt they couldn't compete with blacks. Jason Webb, a nationally ranked backstroker at Virginia who is half black, half white, says, "In general, it just seems that blacks are more athletic." Football coach Walt Frazier of Miami's Carol City High, whose team won the class 6A state championship last year and is 12-0 so far this year, says he hears black parents all the time telling their children, "You can't let that white kid outrun you! You can't let that white kid outjump you! White kids can't run or jump." Says Doug Williams, now the football coach at Morehouse College, "More times than not, it's hard to find one who can jump."
When Barry beat five black players to win the Slam Dunk Contest, some took it as the trashing of a stereotype. "That's huge," TNT commentator Reggie Theus told a national TV audience. "It dispels a heck of a myth." Not in Barry's mind, it didn't. "I like to think [the idea that white men can't jump] is not true, but I find myself at men's clubs and gyms around the country and I see men playing, and I have to say it is true," Barry says. "More often than not, you see white players who just don't play that [high-leaping] style. They play below the rim, they play the court game, they play the savvy game. They're just not very athletic, so that's what they've got to do to succeed."
Such talk may not be politically correct, but the underlying fact--that at the elite level blacks are the fastest runners, the most prodigious leapers, the dominant force on NBA courts and NFL fields--is unassailable. While the scientific jury, faced with intriguing preliminary evidence, still debates whether black athletes possess innate physical advantages, the white athlete works in a world that seems already convinced of the answer. As a kid in snowy-white Iowa, Kevin Little heard the stories: Blacks have an extra muscle in their legs. Blacks have the genetics. "I don't believe the black athlete is superior," he says. "But you don't know that when you're young and impressionable. I'd go to a track meet and people would say, 'Aw, he's going to get his ass kicked.' Even the black sprinters would look at me like, What are you doing here? You're wasting your time. It's not coming just from the whites. It comes from everywhere."
In high school and his first years at Drake, and even at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, Little couldn't escape the thought that he shouldn't even try running sprints. He'd sign up for a meet, and people automatically assumed he was entered in a distance event. "It breaks you down," he says. "It makes you question your abilities. It took years before I had enough confidence to say, 'I'm here, and they have to beat me.'"
As some of today's young white males harbor doubts about whether they are good enough to compete with blacks, they find fewer white superstars than ever to emulate. The NBA no longer has a white star on the order of Larry Bird, and in pro football only Troy Aikman and Brett Favre can approach Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith or Jerry Rice. After Cal Ripken Jr., you'd be hard put to name a current white baseball player with the name recognition of Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. In track and field, no white U.S. male has made an impact since Bruce Jenner at the 1976 Olympics. Even distance running is ruled by blacks: In an 11-day stretch in August, black Africans broke seven world records at distances from 800 to 10,000 meters. The SI poll asked kids to list their sports role models; seven of the top 10 athletes cited were black. Aikman and Ripken were the only white males in the top 20.
This is, by and large, refreshing news: Kids seem to be color-blind in choosing athletic role models. Yet the paucity of white stars seems to have subtly affected the perceptions of some whites. Says Texas professor John Hoberman, author of the recently published Darwin's Athletes, an examination of race and sports, "There is definitely a spreading white inferiority complex." One symptom is a near desperate effort to elevate any white talent to stardom. From the time he was in high school in Southern California, Keith Van Horn, the All-America forward at Utah who was chosen second in this year's NBA draft, continually heard himself called "the next Larry Bird." Never mind that Van Horn, now with the New Jersey Nets, lacked the sublime passing touch that made Bird unique; he was white, tall and more than just a shooter, and that was enough. "I talked to [scouts and coaches from] the Utah Jazz two years ago," says Van Horn, "and they named players they thought I played like: Tom Gugliotta, Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc. When they asked me, I said Schrempf--and Derrick McKey."
Blacks, understandably, react to any crisis of confidence among whites with a wry smile. Hoberman points out in his book that until the early 20th century, African-Americans were considered inferior to whites in athletics--weaker physically, less able to handle pressure, not smart enough to understand complex strategy. What black would go out of his way to reassure the white athlete now? "I'd think blacks would always want to keep the stereotype that we're better than whites; it's an advantage," says Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons All-Star guard. "When two guys walk on the court to play basketball, and the white athlete's dealing with the guy's blackness and the black guy's dealing with the business of basketball, the black guy beats him."
Too often, the full definition of athleticism gets lost in the racial shuffle. Much was made of Bird's work ethic and smarts, but few players of either color have had his uncanny hand-eye coordination. In the mid-'80s no athlete had a broader range of athletic skills than Danny Ainge, who, as an NBA All-Star guard, a near-scratch golfer and an infielder good enough to make the major leagues, was actually a better all-around athlete than Michael Jordan. Yet when Ainge was introduced as the coach of the Phoenix Suns last year, his predecessor Cotton Fitzsimmons used a familiar white stereotype to describe him. "He said it as a compliment, but this is typical: Danny wasn't a very talented athlete, but he got the most out of his ability," Ainge says. "You know, I could touch the top of the square [above the rim] in my young days and dunk. Unfortunately, athleticism in our society is all ranked on how fast you run and how high you jump. There's so much more to it than that."
Mix the notion of white athletic inferiority with the comfortable suburban culture in which so many young white males live, and the result is an atmosphere in which commitment to a sport such as basketball or football becomes ever more rare. Growing up in his upper-middle-class East Bay neighborhood, Barry would make weekend trips to inner-city Oakland. "If we drove to our high school [gym], it would be locked up," Barry says. "But if we drove downtown, we knew garbage cans would be holding the doors open, and guys would be playing."
Barry appreciates players who clamber out of the ghetto. "But it almost takes more effort to get out of a situation where you could sit back and be comfortable," he says. "If you're struggling, you could say, 'I don't need to do this anymore. My parents have great jobs, I could go to any college I want.' It's a much different set of social barriers; the pressure on you to perform isn't so great. If you're the white kid and you've got glee club after school, the ski trip on the holidays and Stratomatic baseball in the spring, well, that's what you're going to do. I pride myself on the fact that I had to have a lot of desire and will and competitiveness to get out of white suburban America and make it in a game dominated by great black athletes."
One of the SI poll's more striking findings was that even though whites at racially mixed schools have been dropping out of basketball and football, these students are less likely to buy the idea of black superiority in athletics than students at all-white schools. The less whites are exposed to blacks, the more inclined they are to believe in the athletic stereotypes. (The reverse, however, is not true; according to SI's poll, blacks at racially mixed schools are more likely than those at all-black schools to believe African-Americans are athletically superior to whites.)
While SI's poll did not find a direct admission of inferiority by a majority of white kids--66% of white males disagreed with the statement that whites are not as good athletes as African-Americans--the playing patterns of white athletes are more telling. In football, for example, both blacks and whites report volunteering, or being led by parents or coaches, to play certain "white" or "black" positions, a practice Lapchick calls "positional segregation." SI's poll found that 54% of white kids tried out for positions on the unglamorous offensive line or defense, compared with only 31% of black kids.
"You see a dominance, and that's what you believe," says Sehorn, who grew up in a poor, racially mixed suburb of Sacramento and whose coaches never discouraged him from playing defensive back and wide receiver. "You begin to believe that black people are better in basketball or can just run faster. We place people in boxes: one kid in this position, one kid in that position. I was fortunate to be directed in a different way."
Most kids, black and white, report that coaches generally are the ones who encourage positional segregation. But Mater Dei's Rollinson often encounters white parents who won't consider that their child might be good enough to play a "black" position at the college level. He says these parents see their son lining up at cornerback or wide receiver and say, "He'll never make it because he's not black." Rollinson tries to tell them their boy runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and has great hands, but they don't want to hear it. "They come right back and say, 'Don't give me that BYU story,'" Rollinson says.
Brigham Young is perhaps the most prominent exception to the black domination of sports. Relying almost exclusively on white talent, the Mormon school has fielded teams that have continually competed at the highest level. The football team sits perennially in the Top 20, making an occasional run at a national title. The basketball team has won 15 Western Athletic Conference titles, made 17 NCAA tournament appearances and produced a dozen All-Americas, and for a week in 1987 it held the No. 2 ranking in the country--yet the Cougars have never started more than one black. "I don't think I had ever played on or against an all-white team," says Van Horn, the former Ute. "When we played BYU, it was strange."
The paucity of African-American players on BYU teams has worked against them. "We haven't had the quickness that a black student-athlete has," says Roger Reid, a Cougars basketball coach for 19 years, seven of them as head coach. Nevertheless, BYU has beaten predominantly black teams from such schools as UCLA, Notre Dame and Virginia. The Cougars have defeated black teams that started games thinking that when push came to shove, their own athletic superiority would tell. San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn learned this. As a junior point guard in 1980 he went to Provo, Utah, with his San Diego State team and got beaten badly. "Those BYU guys were flying through the air, jumping over guys, getting rebounds, and that's the first time I thought, These guys are really athletic," Gwynn says. "Our whole club was shocked."
The next day someone tried to soothe Gwynn's pain by saying that the Cougars had special springs under their floor. "We're like, 'Aw, no wonder! I knew they couldn't jump!'" Gwynn says with a laugh. Only later did he realize: "How come I wasn't jumping any higher?"
Strange, the way things turn around. Now that the superb white jumper or sprinter is such a surprise, blacks can easily ensnare themselves in an old web and underestimate the next Don Beebe because of his skin color. Rollinson, whose team is all but a high school version of BYU, says, "I really believe that the school that is majority black is more apt to buy into the stereotype: 'You white guys aren't going to run by us. We're going to beat you with our speed and our athleticism.' The problem is, football is won in the tackle box...and now all of sudden here come the honkies, and we're just pounding on you and pounding on you. We start the game ass-kicking, and we just don't stop. And now we've created doubt."
That's what Kevin Little looks for. He uses black dominance as his weapon: No one wants to lose to him. "Then the edge goes to me," he says. "I can look into their eyes and their faces, and if they have a little fear of losing to a white sprinter, I've won right there. I'm holding the cards."
Wherever he races, Little can feel it, the slightest hint--and it is no more than a hint--of what Jackie Robinson felt 50 years ago: He is the White Guy, the one athlete in the field whose skin color is noted every time he runs. "That's my identity," Little says, and, no, he doesn't like it much. When he wins before a white audience, the roar from the crowd has a different quality, a current of surprise, "like they just saw a miracle happen," he says. When he won the 400 meters at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., last year before a racially mixed crowd, there was a low buzz from the stands, then silence.
At home in Iowa, his parents share in the glory. Often someone will offer a smile of congratulations and tell his mom that Kevin must have black blood.
Many young blacks are so intent on becoming the next Jordan that they forgo more realistic paths to success.
In Harlem they stomp out into the winter chill four times a week and glide over the ice. It is like a photographic negative of a typical high school hockey game: Three dozen black kids circling two rinks at the north end of Central Park, whacking each other's ankles with hockey sticks, flopping on their bellies and rising back up on their blades. Hockey in Harlem, a schoolwork-and-slap-shots program, has been running games for a decade. With 275 kids ranging in age from four to 18, it is operating at full capacity.
"People tell me hockey is a white person's sport and I shouldn't play," says one of the players, Feliz Cameron, 15. "They say, 'Why do it? You're not going to make it.' But I'm proving them wrong."
Even as many young white males, faced with the black dominance of basketball and football, try to find their footing outside the athletic mainstream, blacks are casting an ambitious eye on traditionally white sports such as hockey, gymnastics and swimming. "Nobody is giving us anything," says Philadelphia Department of Recreation coach Jim Ellis, whose inner-city swimming program produced Virginia senior Jason Webb, one of the fastest backstrokers in the nation. "We're working for it."
That blacks have overcome--or are overcoming--barriers to success in all sports is welcome news, but some African-Americans view it as a mixed blessing. "Blacks have always played the games," says Thomas Elkins, former track and field coach at John Marshall High in Cleveland. "The slave master used to watch the slaves play games to amuse himself. Fifty years after Jackie Robinson, we've progressed to the point that we're still athletes and entertainers, we're just better paid."
Elkins and others worry that too many of today's black youths unrealistically focus on becoming professional athletes. Although any given high school starter has only the slimmest chance of making the pros, 55% of the middle-school-age and high-school-age black males polled by SI (compared with 20% of the white males) think they may be good enough to play pro basketball. Some 49% (compared with 27% of whites) believe they could reach the NFL.
"It's hard to break that train," says Walt Frazier, football coach at Miami's Carol City High. "The kids are still looking at the popularity, the financial security of pro sports, even though statistics say you have a greater chance of being a rocket scientist." When SI's poll asked students to pick from a list of careers the ones they thought they could successfully pursue, 57% of black males chose "professional athlete." Pro sports was the only career selected more often by blacks than by whites or Latinos. By contrast, in assessing their ability to enter fields other than sports, black males were the least likely to believe they could succeed in careers requiring higher education. "I've tried to stress education to my kids, to other kids," says San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, "but it seems like excelling in school is so much harder than throwing a ball through a hoop or running with a football."
Impoverished black teens aren't the only ones who aspire to a sports career. "My son is 16, with a near genius IQ," says Molefi Asanti, former chairman of African-American Studies at Temple, "and all he wants to be is the next Michael Jordan."
Former major league pitcher Dave Stewart, now the Padres' pitching coach, agrees that black youngsters put too much emphasis on sports. But he also knows that when he was growing up in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, sports made him feel better about school and gave him a life. "If athletics is what we're going to be good at, and the one thing we can be the majority at, the one thing in which we can set up our businesses and families and pass [the wealth] on--so be it," Stewart says. "Right now it's sports, but we're seeing a lot more black people in government, more black doctors, more black lawyers. You've got to begin somewhere."
Perhaps as more blacks become successful in other fields, their children will need and want sports less. Not long ago Isiah Thomas, the NBA great and former Toronto Raptors vice president, was talking with Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith--two African-American millionaires discussing their kids. Smith told Thomas he would never let his three-year-old son, Alston, play football: It's too painful, too rough.
"My son plays violin, and he plays golf," Thomas said. "Basketball? He likes to watch it, loves going to games. But I've got a gym in my house, and he doesn't necessarily want to use it. But he'll play his violin all day."