SI Vault
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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Percentage Who Are Black

U.S. Population


Major League Baseball


NFL Players


NBA Players


1996 U.S. Male Track and
Held Gold Medalists


"I started to appreciate him when I put myself into his shoes—a white player trying to break into a black league. No way I could have done it"
—Pee Wee Reese, on Jackie Robinson

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. Thai'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.

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