Asking the wrong questions

Sports with Sophie

Sophie Goethals_online

The first question read, “What is it like to be a white American in the NBA?” The query unnerved me a bit, but I read on. A little later the interviewer asked, “Has anyone ever said anything to you racially on the basketball floor?” and my uncomfort grew.

It ended with a real whopper: the final question was, “What advice would you give to a young white American kid who dreams of playing in the NBA?” — which stirred in me some immense anger.

The questions, asked to some of the best white American players in the NBA, suggest that the road to the NBA is especially rough for white American men, an interesting supposition considering that white males are in many ways the most privileged demographic in the United States.

The inquiries appeared in a recent article on The Undefeated titled “Where are all the white American NBA players?”. And while it is true that white Americans are in the minority in the NBA, treating them as if they are hugely disadvantaged feels a bit unwarranted. The fact that the question is even being asked also undermines the countless African-American men who have fought their way into the league.

To their credit, the men who were asked these questions responded in ways that did not seem to play into the author’s intended message, but the questions were asked nonetheless — and that’s the bigger issue.

The line of inquiry suggests that white American men have a harder time making it to the NBA because there are systemic barriers and impediments that are working directly against their success. This, in fact, could not be further from the truth, and there are multiple phenomena that could hold an answer to the question of their dwindling numbers.

To begin with, many sports leagues in the United States started out as exclusively white, a result of the racial divide that plagued the nation for hundreds of years. As time went on, leagues like the NBA became integrated but were in large part still dominated by white players. This was likely because the U.S. was, and still is, facing a huge racial divide that provided more opportunities for young white men. After all, many players in the NBA came from elite college basketball programs, and the number of white males in college far surpassed the number of young African-American males in college.

Maybe people’s eyes are so accustomed to predominately white leagues that seeing the NBA as it is now — only 18.3 percent white in the 2015-16 season — is shocking. But while it may shock some, it shouldn’t. Once African-Americans were allowed to play in the NBA, their numbers in the league inevitably grew and spurred the growth of youth basketball within the African-American community as well, a cycle that continued to produce more and more African-American players.

The league has also become more diversified because of the relatively cheap cost of learning and playing the game — after all, all you need is a ball and a hoop, and the latter is generally easily found in public spaces.

Another option is that young white men are flocking to other sports that have become increasingly more popular in American society: soccer, lacrosse, golf, hockey and a host of others. And these sports adhere to the old norm of predominantly white participants. Perhaps, then, the lack of white Americans in the NBA could in part be due to the fact that not as many white Americans are playing basketball.

Take lacrosse for example: of the 3,109 division I male lacrosse players, 2,618 (or an overwhelming 84 percent) are white. Or you could look at division I ice hockey where 65 percent of male players are white. Compare that to men’s division I college basketball, which is 58 percent Black, and the story becomes more complicated.

One could argue that this is all due to socioeconomics: perhaps a larger percentage of white Americans are able to afford the expensive equipment and facility fees associated with sports like lacrosse and ice hockey and thus more play those sports. After all, in 2014, it was found that 36 percent of African-American children were living below the poverty line while only 12.3 percent of white children were.

Those numbers seem to suggest that white American children have more economic wherewithal to participate in a wider range of sports while many African-American children may be limited to those sports which are most economically feasible — hence the large numbers who play basketball.

The question The Undefeated should be asking is not “Where are all the White NBA players?” but “Where are all the African-American players in nearly every other U.S. sporting league?” The answers to the latter could be interesting, and prove that there are indeed systemic impediments to athletic success for certain demographics — just not white American males.

Sophie Goethals writes the column about social issues in the world of sports and their potential ramifications. Contact her at [email protected]