What About the Disproportionate Diversity in Pro Sports? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader suggests there are limited career opportunities, or at least “perceived” limited opportunities, for certain minorities outside of professional sports:

When reading one of your notes yesterday, the phrase “disproportionate diversity” jumped out at me. It just doesn’t quite make sense to me unless diversity is understood as a simple code for the inclusion of “minorities,” which would be disappointingly revealing of a perspective insufficiently critical and careful in its engagement with race. Diversity may often be used as code for simply including numbers of minorities below and or up to their proportionate demographic levels, but that cheapens the concept.

Can you have a disproportionate representation of minorities in sports? If your only metric is demographic proportions, sure. But if you survey the field of opportunities perceived to be truly open to minorities and the ways in which minorities have been and continue to be systematically shut out of careers by both personal and institutional biases, then I think the disproportionality becomes a reflection of the realities of minorities’ perceptions of the avenues open to them.

Another reader suggests that such a perception could be self-defeating:

Is extreme overrepresentation of black men in pro sports actually the result of underlying social issues?

Becoming a professional athlete requires a person to both have the genetics and then work extremely hard from the time you’re a child. If you do both of those, and don’t sustain serious injury, there is a remote chance of a sustained career as a professional athlete. In short, being a child working primarily with the goal of becoming a professional athlete is essentially playing the lottery with your own life. And isn’t playing the lottery an irrational decision that taxes the poor? For every professional athlete, there are thousands left in the wake who don’t fare nearly as well.  

Should ANYONE work that hard from the time they’re a child in hopes of a remote chance of making a professional sport? The hard work that the tens of thousands of kids are putting in today in hopes of getting drafted in the 2029 NBA draft is potentially coming at the expense of other interests, with most of those interests carrying much better career potential than playing basketball six hours a day as an eight year old. If you’re that same eight year old, you’re relying on others around you to provide these other interests. If you’re poor, each of those interests can grow to represent “a way out.”

So, looking back, is today’s overrepresentation of black men in professional sports the result primarily of an overrepresentation of eight-year-old black boys in the 1990s who felt they had no other way out?

That could lead to a tragic irony; even when educational and job opportunities open up nationwide, there will inevitably be a lag in the perception that those opportunities are attainable, and thus some young people won’t be as prepared to seize them.

(Video: The first of seven YouTube installments of the award-winning 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams.)