It takes all kinds of athletes to make a truly diverse college. Sure, there's no shortage of coverage or media attention for March Madness or College Bowl days. And if you look at the makeup of our Division I colleges, you will see that it is a reflection of our great and diverse nation. However, when you take a closer look at various college sports, you begin to see a great deal of correlation between one's race and one's chosen athletic outlet. Though athletic ability is obviously a major determinant of whether one plays sports, it may be that cultural and socioeconomic factors have a major bearing on which sports one decides to play.
Not only that, but it may have a major bearing on which sports one decides not to play. Any number of athletic scholarship opportunities may be obscured by cultural conditions so it is our goal to help remove some of these opportunities from obscurity.
In the U.S., we all know about the more popular sports that offer college scholarships: Football, Basketball, Baseball, Softball, Cross Country Running, Track & Field, Volleyball, Golf, Lacrosse, Soccer, Ice Hockey, Field Hockey, Bowling, Swimming, Diving, Wrestling, Tennis, and Gymnastics.
Off the Beaten Athletic Path
As parents, educators and coaches, we have a tendency to point kids toward these traditional sports. The natural inclination often reflects what is locally available. Consequently, we take naturally good athletes and develop them in sports that may not offer them the best long-term opportunity for success.
In actuality though, many colleges offer a number of new and off-beat sports scholarships for today's young athlete. Many of us may be unfamiliar with, and even surprised by, the spectrum of sporting opportunities open to today's youths. Today's young athlete could conceivably excel in a newer or lower-profile sport rather than middling in one of the more popular college sports.
Take, for instance, Beach Volleyball. This is one of the fastest growing scholarship sports in college athletics. Rugby and Triathlon are also among the sports that have more recently begun to award college scholarships.
Race, Culture, and Sport
Granted, some sports remain difficult to access for a certain segment of the population because of proximity, income and availability. Some sports are not as accessible for cultural reasons.
Baseball is a prime example. Fewer black youths are playing baseball today than at any other point since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Some say it's because there are few places to play in the inner city and the equipment is expensive. Others say it has become so specialized at such a young age that it is a difficult, if not an impossible sport, to jump into later in life. Specialization in a sport takes a great deal of training and that can cost a lot of money. The young athlete and trainer will have to pay for equipment, facilities, and a host of other costs that are unique to the sport. Baseball has increasingly become a sport for the affluent.
The sports that are local to and culturally popular within a particular community can create opportunities that may not be available to those from other cultural contexts. Because of the close correlation between race and socioeconomic stratification in America, racial distribution in sports can often become a reflection of these cultural differences.
A deeper look at college sports reinforces this idea. The NCAA demographics for the 2015-2016 school year have some surprising statistics. For example, college baseball sees very low participation from black athletes. Last year, there were a total of 34,888 college baseball players in the U.S.—28,433 were White, 2,230 were Hispanic or Latino and only 1,415 were Black.
This seems unimaginable, but true. The disparity begins at an early age, where the opportunity to develop is found in the more affluent communities.
“The phenomenon that takes place in youth baseball is more direct. The kids who can afford to play on the best travel teams get the most exposure—a word that is the coin of the realm in youth baseball—and the most direct access to the inside world of showcases and high-profile tournaments. They are the ones with the personal hitting or pitching coaches. They are the ones who enter high school, usually a wealthy suburban high school, with the buzz that makes coaches take notice.”
College basketball is quite the opposite. Of the 18,640 Division I college basketball players, black males outnumber white males by 846 players. On the other hand, white females outnumber the black females by 3,154 on the court. (While we're not entirely sure what's behind the latter phenomenon, it is a subject which could warrant its own course of research.)
As it happens, the historical propensity of black athletes toward basketball has persisted largely since the game was invented. According to the African American Registry:
“In 1905, after being exposed to the game over the summer at Harvard University, Coach Edwin B. Henderson introduced basketball to a physical education class at Howard University in Washington, D. C. By 1910, basketball was one of the most popular sports among young African-Americans. The game could be played on almost any surface, and it required little or no equipment. It was promoted largely in the Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCAs) in Black neighborhoods, on basketball courts indoors and outdoors, at parks and on playgrounds.”
Riding the Bench or Breaking the Mold
An observation in youth sports: the exceptional athlete remains on the team, regardless of race. Makes sense. The problem lies in the athlete that is considered to be average (presuming, of course, that the below-average athlete simply gets cut from the team).
Historically, in the more affluent areas, the average young, white athlete is likely be chosen over the average black athlete. Rarely do you see a black player sitting on the bench. This works both ways. Often in lower income cultures, you see teams with only one or two white players. It's usually safe to assume that they are exceptional athletes or they would not be on the team. In such a setting, the average black athlete is likelier to find a spot on the team than the average white athlete.
We are seeing a lesser amount of this particular bias today, but it does remain and it still has a profound effect on the racial makeup of college sports. Today, the exceptional athlete will make the team and participate, whereas the young, average athlete will rarely get the chance to play. Bottom line: if your child is average early on, he or she may not be given the chance to develop in one of the more prominent college sports.
Interestingly, there are a number of college sports that have a similar racial disparity to baseball, though in most cases, the cause is simply cultural preference. Cross country running, golf, hockey, lacrosse, rifle, rowing, and rugby are all prime examples.
What would happen if we mutually supported and encouraged minority youths to try other sports whenever possible? Young participants who demonstrate exceptional athletic abilities but are perhaps average performers in the sports to which they are culturally inclined might fare far more successful if connected with unique and unheralded sports.
Generally speaking, the information available to us as parents is typically provided by our community. Therefore, the sports in which we choose to have our children participate are typically those most accessible in the area. Realistically, we have to ask ourselves, what is the cost? How much time will it take? The cost of access to baseball, for instance, makes it very difficult to be considered an equal opportunity sport.
Still, baseball, like football and basketball, is a traditional American sport. Be prepared to accept that most kids will choose these sports because of the popularity, the visibility and the media presence. This differentiates them from a sport like, say, rugby. This is a great sport, but not an American sport. It is increasingly the subject of college scholarship though.
In fact, many of the new college scholarship sports look like a lot of fun. Consider; fencing, sailing, rifle, squash, badminton, rowing, cycling or boxing. Your child may be good at bass fishing, cricket, canoeing, power-lifting, pistol, trap-shooting, skeet-shooting, synchronized skating, ping pong, ultimate frisbee, water skiing or snow-boarding.
When it comes to your child, get some good advice whenever possible. Search the web, visit with coaches and get familiar with some of the non-traditional sports. Take the time to look at your individual child. Assess where they are in development. Increase your awareness of what is available to your child and where they have the best chance to excel.
Athleticism factors in of course, which is why you want to get a second opinion about your child's abilities. What is available for training? How can we arrive at realistic expectations? What longterm opportunities exist in a specific sport?
It's important to note that as parents, we always run the risk of imposing unrealistic expectations on our children. But with a little research, you can gain a better understanding of the opportunities that are best-suited for your child.
Opening Your Child's Gift
Recognize that every child has a gift. It's up to us as parents, coaches, teachers and trainers to discover that gift. Without bias, truthfully direct the child to the sports that build their self-esteem and potentially could fetch them a college scholarship.
If they fall in love with a particular sport that doesn't make the most of their athletic talent, it may be time to compromise by finding a sport in which your child can truly compete at a higher level.
Regardless of the sport, help them develop the basic fundamental skills needed to be successful. Be patient with them. He or she may be that average child…waiting to develop into a superstar.