Saturday, May 25, 2024

Decline of the African-American Athlete?

August 28, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Sports, Weekly Columns

( Over 50 years ago, Jackie Robinson’s recruitment into major league baseball marked the beginning of what might be called a Golden Era for African Americans in professional sports. Over the last decade, however, that era appears to be coming to an end.

Later, I’ll touch on why this seems to be the case, but first, here are a few observations on recent news stories that, primarily because of their wide and ongoing coverage — and the fact that African-Americans are so often stereotyped — the stories are somewhat symbolic of that decline.

Of course, the big news in baseball is Barry Bonds. Despite breaking Hank Aaron’s homerun record (and the beloved Babe Ruth’s in the bargain), Bonds’ home plate bombs may not count for much in the annals of the sport. In fact, due to his alleged steroid use, many fans and sports officials question whether or not he should ever be admitted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

In the larger picture, however, African-Americans are slowly disappearing from major league baseball. In 1975, the numbers of African-American players on major league rosters reached a highpoint of 175. Their numbers have been steadily declining since. Today, there are only 90 African-Americans in the major leagues, while the number of Hispanics and other people of color more than doubles that.

In pro football, Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback, Michael Vick, has dug a pit he may never be able to climb out of. As most know, Vick has confessed to financing vicious dog fighting matches and, in so doing, has all but guaranteed that his next uniform will be a striped one.

From what I’ve heard, in addition to spending whatever time in a federal prison, the Falcons already have suspended Vick without pay; he has lost multi-million dollar commercial endorsement contracts; and people are using jerseys with his number on it as pooper scoopers. The beleaguered sports star has been quoted as saying, “I’ve got to grow up!”

There are other players who have been all over the news and who, like Vick, seem equally in need of growing up. The Tennessee Titans’ Pac Man Jones, for example, is yet another gifted athlete whose exploits on the field are far overshadowed by his misdeeds off the field. Jones, I believe, has been suspended for a whole year.

In yet another high-profile case, former Chicago Bear Tank Johnson did jail time for possessing six unregistered firearms, which was a violation of previous gun charges. The Bears placed him on waivers a few months ago when Arizona police arrested him for doing 40 in a 25 mph zone. According to the reports, he was legally drunk at the time.

In track and field, a few years ago Marion Jones was celebrated as the fastest woman on earth, and perhaps the planet’s most gifted female athlete. Her prize winnings, endorsements, and personal property were valued in the millions of dollars. Today, however, after charges of steroid use and an reports of an apparently bad marriage, the track star is flat broke. When she filed for bankruptcy, court records fixed her total worth at $2,000.

Although African-Americans continue to dominate in sports such as basketball and football — at least numerically — powerful social currents constrain the growth of their numbers and continued dominance as athletes. I think part of it is related to a generational “fault” that has left many young people of all races more interested in doing well, not doing right; in taking, not giving; and in bling-bling, not brotherly love.

Noting a general decline in the quality of sports in America, sports activist and scholar, Berkeley University’s Harry Edwards, says: “We are jailing, burying and disqualifying our potential point guards, wide-receivers, running backs, power forwards, centers, and so forth, at an early age.

He continues: Blacks dominated boxing, basketball, football, track, and even baseball; all sports they participated in in high numbers. Now we are seeing a precipitous drop-off and the reasons are not inside sports, but in society, which is reflective of sport.”

I think Edwards is right. Negative attitudes and values pervasive in the wider society produce people who are selfish, remorseless, and, in many cases, lawless. Athletes are not immune. Accordingly, we all bear a responsibility for the demons we have created in our future leaders, whether they are athletes are not. And, at the end of the day, we will all have the devil to pay.

By Primus Mootry

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