Much has been made recently of the dearth or decline of African Americans in sports like baseball, lacrosse, golf, soccer, swimming, and hockey and the dominance of African Americans in sports like basketball, football, and track.
There have been nearly as many theories and explanations as there are pundits. It has been said that African Americans concentrate on sports that can be played in densely populated urban areas, that don’t require large initial investments, and that are largely supported by existing public school budgets.
The Philadelphia Inquirer came up with something new in an August 2009 article on African American interest in the Phillies and in baseball in general in the wake of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series title and the team’s participation in inner city activities designed to increase interest in baseball. “Baseball is usually something you do with your dad,” the paper asserted. “The inner-city kids, the dads are not around.”
Absent dads have been a focus point in the African American community for decades, and the situation is often highlighted in public by community leaders like President Obama who claim that many African American adult males are shirking family responsibilities by being absent from the home. This is the first time we have seen the situation couched in terms of having a catch with dad ala the movie Field of Dreams.
One can certainly make the case that golf and baseball in particular are sports introduced to a son or daughter by his or her father. Dad would usually have the club membership necessary to get started in golf, and middle-aged men are most likely to pass on baseball lore, take their child to a game, play catch, and encourage rooting for “our team.”
According to a 2000 report from the US Census Bureau, 65 percent (or nearly two-thirds) of African American children grow up without a father in the home. It’s easy to imagine such children drifting into more solitary activities like shooting baskets or running around a track at best, or falling into the wrong crowd at worst.
The pattern also holds when it comes to equipment. Baseball gloves and bats, lacrosse sticks, golf clubs and hockey gear are expensive, as is private coaching and ice time. Basketball hoops, on the other hand, are at nearly every school and public park, so if you have a ball and some sneakers you’re in business. Running around a track requires an even smaller investment. Among traditionally strong African American sports only football requires a large upfront equipment outlay, and most of that is handled by public schools.
Another factor is attending games and becoming immersed in a sport. According to the Inquirer, “A working mother of four can’t afford to take her kids (to the ballpark.)” Single mothers, especially in the African American community, don’t typically own country club memberships, don’t have the time to drive to the ice rink, and often lack exposure to relatively new American mainstream sports like soccer and lacrosse.
While there are consequences for African Americans in sports, then presidential candidate Barrack Obama noted in a June 2008 speech that absentee African American fatherhood problems run much deeper. “Too many (African American) fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Obama said. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.
“We need (African American) fathers to realize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception. That doesn’t just make you a father. What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”
That courage includes passing down family traditions, like sports. Every African American should know the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers and should understand how difficult a game baseball is to play well to appreciate Robinson’s journey. With fathers in the home, African American children will also have greater opportunity to follow the paths blazed by Tiger Woods, Jozy Altidore, James Stewart, the Williams’ sisters and Mike Grier. African Americans in sports will be richer for it.
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.