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WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE WHITE ATHLETE?
S.L. Price
December 08, 1997
Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere
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December 08, 1997

What Ever Happened To The White Athlete?

Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere

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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 39½ 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."

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