The White Man’s Sport

I’ve been kind of sitting on some thoughts for several weeks now, all interweaving with the issue du jour (at least until the next crazy and divisive subject comes up on social media) – Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests to bring awareness to, and meaningful discussion of, racial inequality in our country.  But this week’s latest issues in Tulsa and Charlotte have inspired me to pen a few words.

While certainly not growing up with a silver spoon in my mouth, as a white male I’m keenly aware that I’ve been afforded opportunities that others who don’t look like me haven’t been able to access. I don’t stare up at a glass ceiling because of my gender.  When pulled over by the police at night, I’ve never had a fear that I’d be irrationally taken from my vehicle and put in the back seat of the police cruiser (or worse yet, handcuffed and pushed face-down onto the trunk of my car).  As far as I know, nobody has ever seen me walking towards them and crossed to the other side of the street because how I “look” doesn’t mesh with their value system and they’re frightened.  Because I’ve never been in these situations, I can’t sympathize with anyone who lives with these very real fears and concerns.

With the above paragraph as my disclaimer that my platform to discuss race issues is certainly limited, I found the USA Today article about Adam Jones’ assessment that black baseball players can’t join Kaepernick’s protest because the great American game of baseball is a “white man’s sport” (and Tony LaRussa’s rebuttal) to be an interesting pivot to a subject that I DO have some experience with…the state of baseball’s growth among minority kids.

If you know me, you know my love of baseball.  You might also recall that I spent some time volunteering with, and working for, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI).  Add this all to my sports reporting background and I certainly have an opinion on the subject.

RBI was founded in 1989 by former Major Leaguer John Young, who saw a decline in the number of black players being drafted into the game.  I had a chance to meet John a couple of times, and he was an incredibly inspirational man who had a huge heart for the kids he served (and unfortunately he left us this past spring, way too soon).  According to MLB’s RBI facts, more than 260,000 kids participate annually in more than 200 cities worldwide.  The program’s mission is more than getting players drafted…it stresses participation, the importance of academics and gives kids something structured to do during the summer months, when there aren’t other school-related activities happening.

While an incredible program, being run nationally by one of my first mentors, Tom Brasuell, RBI hasn’t had it’s original intended impact…to grow the sport in black communities.  Jones brings attention to this shrinking participation and how it impacts how he (and presumably other players) approach social issues.  As the article states, “African Americans comprise 68% of the player population in the NFL, and 74% in the NBA.  That number is just 8% in baseball…”.

But LaRussa counters that Jones is off base…”when he says it’s a white, like elitist, kind of sport, I mean how much wronger can he be?”.

Not sure I saw anything in the USA Today article referencing Jones calling his sport “elitist”, but the numbers certainly show it’s “white”.  Sorry Tony, but you’re the wrong one in this case.  And while LaRussa mentions that MLB is trying to expand opportunities for black athletes, since RBI started 27 years ago, the percentage of black MLB players has actually come down from 16.5%.

What’s working well?  RBI participation is it’s highest ever, and “inner city” is defined by more than African Americans…RBI (and other MLB growth generation) makes an impact in neighborhoods of all colors and Latin American countries…Japan has been a hotbed of talent, and there are even players coming from Europe.  I’d argue that Major League Baseball may be one of the most DIVERSE leagues when judged as a whole.

But where can these programs do better for African American kids, or kids without the means to find top-notch coaching and travel programs (baseball isn’t inherently “expensive” to play, yet it’s becoming increasingly reliant on year-round instruction that can be costly…a subject for another day!)?   MLB is working on it.  I’d start with the simple suggestion that these programs need to actively get out and RECRUIT kids to play rather than taking a “if we build it, they will come” approach.

Like any industry today, there’s a lack of resources at the community level both with MLB and with Boys & Girls Club locations (RBI’s main partner for participants), but with the proper training, community leaders at the local level can create relationships with schools and teachers to actively encourage participation rather than throwing a sign-up sheet on the wall of all the BGC locations.  Program Directors and educators WANT programs like this, but need to be better educated on the benefits and be more scripted to respond to pushback from kids who just simply haven’t been exposed to the game and are perhaps scared to try something new.

There’s certainly competition, from basketball and football in particular, both with more money available in college scholarships and the lure of bigger pro paydays for the 0.01% that make it that far.  I play recreational basketball as well as baseball, and I’m certainly aware of the difference in game speed and the ability to single yourself out and carry a team in a sport with less players to share the ball.  But I’ll argue that a love of baseball isn’t ONLY created during game competition.  There are ways to make practices fast-paced, competitive and fun.  THIS is where development happens and confidence is built.

As for teaching practice plans and skills development…again, with proper instruction and follow-through at ground-level, coaches can be trained to run a fun practice that helps build a solid foundation for kids.  And the end result?  This structure provides the skills to meet the original goal of having more opportunities for African American players.

With active recruiting and great coaching structure, coupled with existing resources from MLB teams in each city and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, maybe RBI can fill that “travel” void that inner city kids need to stay competitive in the sport.  Even if zero kids are drafted, I’d bet this structure would make the game FUN again!

And wouldn’t it be nice if an individual, no matter what color or background, can feel comfortable enough in their profession to freely speak their mind and exercise their right to free speech?  What’s more American than that?

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