Sports, race, & identity

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

One of the ways we create unique personal identities is through the free-time activities we choose. These days those activities are likely to involve lots of screen time. In response, parents may be looking for activities to get their children moving – and outside. One likely direction are sports, either individual or team. What sports children choose is likely influenced by their parents, by friends, and by what’s available nearby. One of the other factors is the current popularity of any given sport. Interest in soccer (football) always goes up when the World Cup rolls around. Of particular importance are major sports figures, particularly if they offer some personal connection. They can function as a “reference group”, a group we aspire to join. A story on NPR this week looked at the inspiration that Venus and Serena Williams have given young African-Americans to take up tennis and asked why it is that Tiger Woods has not had the same effect in golf. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that tennis, like golf, was seen as a sport for the leisure class, i.e. in the US, predominantly for whites. Of course, it takes more resources to play golf than it does tennis. But it is also likely just the image that golf projects, not a likely imagined future for most young African-Americans. There have been efforts to interest urban youth in golf, notably through the First Tee program, which has had success in some cities.

Of course, professional basketball remains the imagined future for a good number of talented young African-Americans. The NBA has over 70% Black players. As Michael Dyson pointed out in his book on “Reflecting Black”, basketball has become much more than a sport for many urban communities, “it also became a way of ritualizing racial achievement against social barriers to cultural performance.” (pp. 66-67). It used to be that baseball offered similar opportunities for Blacks – and it still does for Dominicans, who continue to flock to the US to play in the major leagues. But in last year’s World Series, there was not a single African-American on the winning team (the San Francisco Giants). There were also no Blacks on the team the Giants beat to get to the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals. Comedian and baseball fan Chris Rock commented: “How could you ever be in St. Louis and see no black people? And get this. Their crowds were more than 90 percent white — like the Ferguson police department!” In fact, he has a whole routine on the whiteness of baseball:

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