Facing the Diversity Crisis in Pro Sports

By Michael Medved, 5/20/02

The new edition of the "Jobs Rated Almanac" highlights the dire need for a massive new governmental program to assure equal access to the nation's top-paying positions. Without such action, the people who hold the best paying job of them all will continue to display a shocking lack of diversity and a tragic under-representation—of white people.

The new almanac, edited by Les Krantz, lists 250 jobs according to income (and many other factors) and the top paying position by a wide margin is "NBA Player." If you're lucky and talented enough to secure one of these jobs, you earn an average salary of $4,637,825 - more than twice as much as the number two job on the list, "Major League Baseball Player" (which draws a relatively paltry $1,954,400). In third place among the most generously remunerated vocations is "NFL Player," with average pay of $1,836,460.

In each of these three top income jobs, the percentage of white Anglos falls far short of their percentage in the population at large (69 percent, according to the most recent census) while African Americans enjoy far greater representation than their 12 percent of the general public. In the most lavishly rewarded job of them all, NBA player, blacks hold more than 70 percent of these plum positions, yet no one demands a new diversity program, or a special recruitment drive to bring in more white, Latino and especially Asian players.

This odd situation raises a disturbing but unavoidable question: Why should "diversity", defined almost always in exclusively racial terms, represent an imperative for lawyers and college professors, accountants and architects, neurosurgeons and firefighters, but never for professional athletes? The common answer invokes the emphasis on competitive excellence in big-time sports: Teams want to win at all costs and standards of on-field performance count far more than questions of racial balance. In pro basketball, seemingly subtle distinctions in ability can make the difference between victory and defeat. According to this argument, the small gap between a supremely talented performer and one who is merely excellent matters far more in sports than it does in other fields.

In other words, among trivial professions such as nuclear physicists and obstetricians and airline pilots we can afford to hire less impressive candidates for the sake of racial representation, but pro sports are so uniquely important that they must remain uncontaminated by all demands for diversity.

Of course, there's an alternative explanation for the public complacency about the unrepresentative nature of leading pro leagues: No one protests because society's favorite victim groups (particularly African Americans in basketball and Hispanics in baseball) look like anything but victims when it comes to sports. But even in professional hockey, with its almost total absence of black players, the usually vociferous activists and agitators remain silent because of the cultural consensus that winning counts more than diversity.

The example of sports, in fact, illuminates the hollow nature of all arguments on behalf of racial balance. We're told that we need proportional ethnic representation in the president's cabinet, for instance, because young people of color can't relate to leaders with a different shade of skin. Yet hundreds of millions of white kids in America, plus children of every other race around the world, find it easy to identify with Kobe Bryant or Sammy Sosa, regardless of their complexion. Ichiro Suzuki inspires the entire Northwest with his dazzling play for the Seattle Mariners, but no one complains that he's an inappropriate representative for a community that's less than 2 percent Japanese American.

Then there's the challenge about ownership of pro sports franchises. Defenders of quotas, preferential treatment and diversity programs insist that the players may represent ethnic minorities, but owners and managers remain predominantly white. But this observation, as accurate as it may be, proves nothing: A coach who does a poor job will lose his position just as surely as a player who does a poor job, and an owner who handles his responsibilities stupidly will begin losing money and eventually lose his franchise.

The principle of free competition, of allowing the best to win and the rest to walk, works just as effectively (if not quite as rapidly) in the front office as it does on the field. When the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball's color barrier by bringing the great Jackie Robinson onto the team, they did so not to make progress on the long road to social justice, but because they wanted to win the National League pennant.

Sports remains remarkably color-blind because of this ruthless focus on excellence and success, and all other American endeavors ought to emphasize practical results with the same single-mindedness. If we took medicine and politics, technology, journalism and teaching as seriously as we take our fiercely competitive fun and games, then diversity demands would provoke derision and dismissal instead of nervous respect.