50 Years After MLK’s ‘Dream,’ How Do Professional Sports Measure On Race?

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the key speech in America’s civil rights history when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed his dream that one day his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King that day wasn’t talking about sports, though the sporting world ultimately played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement. Muhammad Ali marched alongside Malcolm X in the 1960s, and five years after King delivered his speech, Tommie Smith and John Carlos lifted black-gloved fists on a podium at the Olympics in Mexico City to protest American discrimination.

It’s easy to look at sports today and see progress. The four major sports leagues long ago banned discrimination on the basis of race, and the broader fight for equality in sports has shifted today to sexual orientation, not race. African-Americans, Latinos, and other racial minorities fill professional rosters and walk the sidelines as championship-winning coaches. To think the fight is over, though, would be naive. African-Americans still are woefully under-represented on the business side of sports, as this breakdown shows:

National Football League: The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports gave the NFL an A grade for racial hiring practices on its 2012 report card. Two-thirds of the league’s players are racial minorities — the vast majority of them black — and 26 percent of the league’s management positions are occupied by people of color. There were six African-American general managers in 2012, making it the sixth straight year there have been at least five. Eight of the last 12 Super Bowl participants have had either a black coach or GM. At the same time, just three black NFL coaches will begin the season of the sidelines this year, down from six last season and eight the year before. At the end of the 2012 season, Jim Caldwell was the only black offensive coordinator in the NFL. Eight head coaching positions and seven general manager jobs were filled during the 2013 offseason; not a single one went to a minority. Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, became the NFL’s first and only owner of color in January 2012.

National Basketball Association: TIDES gave the NBA an A+ grade for racial hiring practices on its 2013 report card. More than three-quarters of all NBA players are African-Americans; people of color make up 81 percent of the league’s players. In 2012–2013, the NBA employed its second-highest number of black head coaches ever and set a new record for assistant coaches of color. There are six African-American general managers among the league’s 30 teams, and people of color hold 35 percent of jobs in the league’s front office, an increase from the year before. No American league employs a higher percentage of people of color in its front office. There are 24 people of color involved in ownership in the NBA, though Michael Jordan remains the only one who holds a majority stake in his team, and minorities held just four CEO or president positions for NBA teams during the 2012–2013 season, but 35 who served as vice presidents. Those numbers are all relatively constant from recent years before.

Major League Baseball: Major League Baseball received an A grade for its racial hiring practices on its 2013 TIDES report card. More than a quarter of baseball players are now of Latino origin, and the number of Asian players increased as well. The number of foreign-born players is now at its fourth-highest level ever. Just 8.2 percent of players were black, consistent with previous years but a decline from the past that has concerned both Major League Baseball and African-American community leaders, leading MLB to start outreach programs and task forces to attract more young black players to the game. At the same time, seven of the 31 players taken in the first round of the MLB draft were black, the highest share since 1992. 9.7 percent of baseball’s front office employees are black; 14.7 are Latino and 3.4 are Asian. There were three people of color — two Latinos and one African-American — serving as general managers at the start of the season, down from a high of five in 2010, and four managers of color, down from a high of 10 in 2009. The number of minorities in other coaching positions reached an all-time high in 2013.

College sports: TIDES gave college sports an overall B grade for racial hiring practices. The biggest area of concern in collegiate sports is for basketball coaches, where the percentage of black head coaches has dropped from an all-time high of 25 percent in 2006 to just 18.6 percent in 2012. Nearly 90 percent of athletic directors at Division I institutions are white, though 15 percent of athletic directors at major conference schools are black. Whites also hold 87.5 percent of associate athletic director positions. Every one of the 11 major conference commissioner is white. There were 18 coaches of color leading Division I football programs, the same number as in 2011 but well ahead of the number a decade ago. For more numbers on college athletes, read the entire report.

These numbers are a snapshot, but clearly, our major sports leagues are improving when it comes to race on the fields, sidelines, and in front offices. But even as the number of minorities in coaching and management positions has improved — thanks in part to both rule changes and a larger consciousness of diversity — there still remains a dissonance between the number of minority athletes and the number that ascends into coaching and management jobs. That’s especially true when it comes to ownership, where two former athletes, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, have broken the ceiling that exists for African-Americans but where ownership opportunities remain virtually non-existent for minorities, particularly if they want a controlling stake. In that way, professional sports have been largely stagnant: many of the athletes are minorities, but the people who sign their checks and in large part control their futures remain mostly white.


At the same time, black and minority athletes still face racial problems inside sports. Though fans in the United States rarely display the racism that is common in European stadiums, they still often face racial backlash from fans on social media. And while black athletes have broken barriers on the field — the quarterback position is no longer reserved for whites, for instance — they still often run up against racial stereotypes and biases when dealing with fans, owners, and coaches, even if those biases are often more subtle and subconscious than they once were. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the question now isn’t whether black players receive a chance, but whether they receive the same chance to succeed. We’ve made progress, but to pretend that we’ve reached the mountaintop, in Dr. King’s words, is both incorrect and dangerous in its ability to let us ignore the progress that still needs to be made.

Perhaps the large number of black athletes should also give us pause. Sports have opened a mostly meritorious door to economic prosperity for African-Americans and other minorities that doesn’t exist in many other parts of society, where large education and economic gaps have perpetuated racial and social divides in our society. That sports still remain the primary way up the economic ladder for young black men in particular, though, should highlight the ways we’ve fallen short in other parts of society. Making it to the professional ranks in sports is nearly impossible — that so many young black athletes view it as more possible than achieving economic success outside of sports, or even in the coaching, management, and ownership ranks inside sports, is a tragedy that we have perpetuated and evidence that more equal opportunities need to exist in education and elsewhere. Focusing on diversity hiring in professional and college sports will help that at the margins, giving more minorities business opportunities in sports once their careers are over. But many of the executives who come to the sports world — as owners or in front offices — get there after successful experiences in other industries. Making the world of sports more equal, then, is intertwined with our efforts to make society more equal, and accomplishing that will take a broader societal effort to address and combat the many inequalities that exist not just in sports but in America as a whole.