When we think about how this nation was founded, there’s no denying that we hear the chant “No taxation without representation” played countless times in our minds. The colonies established why representation was so important, and today, we value representation as diversity — diversity of thought, ability and race.
We seek movie casts of people of all races and ethnicities. We want college campuses that are full of different, unique ideas. We say we value heterogeneity and the so-called salad metaphor — that we are one nation full of many languages, cultures and identities, each like a different salad topping. And we say the more toppings, the better the salad.
But when we look at racial diversity among elite American athletes, we see a poor excuse for a salad — not the colorful creation we imagined, but just a lot of spinach and lettuce. And that’s it. No veggies, no protein, no dressing.
Think about America’s array of professional sports: MLB — predominantly white. NHL — white. NBA — Black. WNBA — Black. NFL – Black. (Yet quarterbacks and centers are nearly all white?) Tennis – white. And MLS – the United States’ best go at a salad.
The United States is a nation full of many skin colors and cultures, but that fact is absent in the world of athletics. Why? Perhaps it’s cultural — some parents, traditions and such don’t encourage careers in athletics like others. And that’s fine. But I think there’s a larger reason in play as well.
As the artist Macklemore once rapped, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint. They greats were great because they’d paint a lot.”
Despite whatever natural talents they have, we know Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady weren’t born elite athletes, but that they had to muster up physical and equally important mental strength to achieve their goals. But when someone like Bryant’s race is constantly under attack in the world around him or was questioned in the gym, he needed additional mental strength, dedication and motivation that Brady perhaps has never required as white athlete.
I’m not saying racial diversity across all sports leagues needs to be perfectly proportional to racial diversity in the United States. Nor am I saying that people of color are intentionally suppressed from furthering their athletic careers. But implicit biases, subjectivity and lack of diversity in American professional athletics make it increasingly difficult for minority athletes to reach the top.
Thus, I think it’s important to acknowledge and thank those who have made it, against the force of the river. These athletes work tirelessly to represent themselves, and in doing so, they also represent their communities, cultures and races. They change the status quo and inspire our youth.
Whether it’s an Asian athlete in the NBA proving athleticism isn’t dependent on race or a Black athlete in the NFL building respect and hope for oppressed Black communities nationwide, they earn my respect because their accomplishments allow others to believe they, too, can be great one day. The more athletes from minority groups who distinguish themselves and join the major leagues, the more people who believe that they can also cross or even tear down barriers, whether in sports or another sector of American life.
To Derek Jeter, Francisco García, Jujhar Khaira, Brandon Chillar, Eugene Amano and many more, you represent more than a quality salad; you represent determination, success and evolving elite American athletics.
Surina Khurana covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].