Barriers For Blacks in Professional Sports

Necessities

Phillip M. Hoose

Random House

160 pp. $15.95

AT a time when Black median income in the United States is only 57 percent of the median income for whites, professional sports would seem to be a bastion of racial fairness and equity. After all, Blacks make up more than three-quarters of the NBA and more than half of the starters in the NFL. And with each year a greater number of Hispanics are becoming star players in major leagues baseball.

But behind the peaceful, integrated facade of pro sports lies a disturbing truth, one that is exposed bluntly only on rare occasions. Like the April 6, 1987 episode of Nightline, when Los Angeles Dodger executive Al Campanis said that Blacks "may not have some of the necessities" to be managers or general managers. The show, ironically, was devoted to the 40th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.

The comments by Campanis, who was fired a few days later, were disturbing in themselves (he went on to say the Blacks couldn't be good swimmers because they were not "bouyant"), but the misguided beliefs and attitudes they reflect are not rare in the world of sports.

How else could you explain why so few Blacks hold positions of authority in sports, both on and off the field? Why are there so few Black quarterbacks and catchers? Why has there never been a Black head coach in the NFL? And why, until the recent purchase of the Denver Nuggets, had there never been a Black-owned major league franchise in any sport, despite the numbers of wealthy Blacks seeking to buy a team?

IN Necessities, Phillip M. Hoose tries to reveal the prejudices that answer these questions. Better stated, he lets them reveal themselves in interviews with players, coaches, scouts and broadcasters. Although only a few comments are overtly racist, many others reveal the innate, subconscious racism of those who control professional sports.

The opening chords provide the greatest dissonance. At the start of the first chapter are two quotes from Hall-of-Fame baseball star Ted Williams: one about himself and another about Black Cincinnati Reds star Eric Davis. In one, the former Bosox star says he developed his talents through practice; in the other, he says Davis is blessed with God-given athletic abilities.

On its own, each quote would seem inoffensive. But by juxtaposing them against each other Hoose shows how a painful stereotype is perpetuated; each comment subtly--and presumably unintentionally--conveys a message that Blacks are gifted with greater athletic ability and can be lazy about developing their talents, while whites, who are smarter, have to work harder to improve. It is the same distinction that is used when people compare Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, Pete Rose and Willie Mays.

The group that perpetuates this stereotype most, the media, is also the group most likely to deny its existence. When asked about their tendency to call white players smarter and Black players better athletes, several prominent broadcasters, almost all of them white, point to specific cases where the stereotype is true--cases where the Black is the better natural athlete--and insist that they are color-blind when they call the games.

THIS defense seems credible when you consider that some of these announcers are responsible for breaking down the explicit racial barriers in sports (As CBS' Billy Packer says, "I was the first guy ever to recruit a black guy into the ACC."). But the stereotypes are too overplayed to be coincidental. After studying the broadcasts of several pro football and college basketball games, Derrick Z. Jackson, a columnist for The Boston Globe, found that adjectives implying pure physical ability or the lack of mental control were used between six and nine times more by broadcasters when they were describing Black athletes.

But members of the media are not the only ones whose semiconscious, racist values are exposed and rejected in this provocative book. In separate chapters, the assertions that Blacks can't swim and lack the necessities to manage or own teams are dismissed with stories about an all-Black swimming club in Cleveland and the only Black-owned minor league franchise in history. There are also chapters about the dearth of Black catchers in baseball and the stereotype of Latin players as hot-blooded.

But Hoose saves his harshest criticism for the National Football League, that "kingdom of megafauna where clothesline tackles and forearm shivers bring back ancient truths." There have been only eight Black quarterbacks in NFL history to throw more than 25 passes, and the league has never had a Black head coach.

For years, Black college quarterbacks either had to go to Canada or learn to play another position in the NFL. Interviews with those Blacks who, despite their abilities, were forced to play some-where else are some of Hoose's most revealing--shedding light both on the players' pain and the cruel bias of the system.

THE times, however, seem to be changing. The National League just named as its president Bill White, a former ballplayer who was one of the few Blacks to break successfully into broadcasting. Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham are definitively removing all doubts about Black QBs. And earlier this year, baseball celebrated a long-overdue first when the Baltimore Orioles played the Toronto Blue Jays--both team are managed by Blacks.

Still, there is a long way to go. Blacks and Hispanics deserve a bigger share of management posts in the professional sports pie. Necessities reveals the attitudes that will stand in the way. For anyone who is interested in seeing professional sports live up to its reputation as a great equalizer, Necessities is a must read.