Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali. Tiger Woods. These black U.S. athletes became household names after making their mark in basketball, boxing and golf. But despite their evident success on the court, in the ring and on the golf course, why have members of minority communities failed to rise to the top in the business of sports? Kenneth L. Shropshire, a professor of legal studies and real estate at Wharton, has strong opinions about that. His research and teaching focus on, among other things, the legal, business and social aspects of sports and entertainment. His book, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, published by New York University Press, addresses the absence of minorities, particularly African-Americans, in positions of power in sports.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why is the business of sports a good place to study societal problems?
Shropshire: You would think that sports, as a business, would be one of the most successful in terms of racial integration. But if you look very deeply behind it, it’s not. The perception in sports is that you get rewarded based on performance, and there’s nothing that can hold you back if you’re the best. People often mistakenly think that this is true off the field as well. Yet, off the field, sports looks like any other industry the higher up you go.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why do you feel race is a determining factor in the absence of African-Americans in sports management?
Shropshire: When I was first promoting my book, it was the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson "breaking the color line" in baseball. The premise I worked from was that in the past 50 years, several excuses had been offered to explain the absence of minorities in top levels of the sports industry. For example, people claimed that minorities didn’t have management experience or they hadn’t been involved in the sports industry long enough. But the ownership of teams aside, once you get a step below that level to team presidents, general managers and the like, you have lots of competent people among the minorities who have had long-term experience. They should have such jobs, but they don’t. By process of elimination, race, in one of the most sophisticated ways possible, becomes the answer. It’s not necessarily that individuals act in an overtly racist manner. But it’s an industry where relationships are key to who gets hired. Sports people, like other people in society, don’t necessarily have long-term relationships with minorities.
Knowledge at Wharton: Are some sports better than others when it comes to a greater presence of minorities in top management?
Shropshire: Across the board, if you look at college sports and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the number of African-American coaches is very small. You can’t name a sport where it’s not a problem, though it is more dramatic in some, like baseball. The National Basketball Association, for example, is better than others. I think you should see a similar representation in sports to what you see in America. In America, you have 12% African-Americans in top-level management. You don’t see that in sports, where it’s about 5% for all minorities, including Latinos, African-Americans and Asians. In fact, 12% is a modest figure when you consider minorities represent nearly 90% of the players in the NBA, 65% of the National Football League and 40% of major league baseball. It is difficult to determine the appropriate goal, but by any measure 5% strikes me as too low.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you explain the lawn jockey as an image of the roots of racism and discrimination in sports?
Shropshire: The working title of my book was originally "Lawn Jockeys: Race and Sports in America," and the publisher talked me out of it. The lawn jockey is something we’ve all seen. Depending on your background, you have varying reactions to it. For some, it’s a friendly looking little statue of a black jockey holding a ring. For others, it’s one of the most racist symbols out there, harking back to the images of slavery. I see the lawn jockey as representing what happens to a lot of athletes. They don’t realize the negative symbolism that comes if they fail to speak up and do more than just play the games. Of course, this criticism certainly does not apply to all athletes, many of whom are activists regarding important societal issues.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do the athletes take a personal interest in the topic of race and sports management?
Shropshire: Many do in private conversations. Not unlike other business settings, some fear the impact their critical comments may have on their jobs. Those who could really wield some power are the ones who become high-profile free agents. For instance, if Michael Jordan decided to come back to the league as a free agent, he could say one of his prerequisites for signing with a team is that it has a good record of minorities in management positions. If he does that, and the next great ball player comes in and does the same thing, pretty soon teams will realize that if they want good players, they need more diversity in their top ranks. But we don’t see this happening. Today there’s more of a mentality of how much money can I make for myself, rather than addressing the broader issues. But remember that activist-athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and others were part of larger movements. For example, Ali took a stance against the Vietnam War, and Arthur Ashe was active in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. What movements do athletes have to latch on to today?
Knowledge at Wharton: Should the sports industry have more aggressive affirmative action programs at management levels?
Shropshire: The most beneficial programs in sports make sure under-represented minorities and women are forced into networks so that the people who are selecting coaches and management personnel have a broader base of individuals to choose from. Owners and decision-makers say they take people they know the best. We need programs that break down barriers in terms of networks. That holds true in broader society. In instances where you know there are under represented individuals who are qualified, if it’s not racism or sexism, you know the barrier is a lack of awareness of who the qualified candidates are. If you break down that barrier and it still doesn’t happen, you need to move in some other direction, maybe even measures like the dreaded Q word, (like) quotas, or at least goals and timetables to force people to get a better minority representation in their ranks. Many innovative measures have not been fully tested yet. There is a website called "the level playing field" (at www.tlpf.com) that utilizes new technologies to network minority coaching candidates for professional and collegiate football coaches with those hiring decision makers. Much more can be done.
Knowledge at Wharton: What needs to be done to combat racism at the top levels of sports?
Shropshire: Beyond improving networks, it turns out to be a hearts and minds kind of issue. As corny as some critics thought the Clintons’ conversation on race was, there’s something to that, particularly in sports. Take a sport like major league baseball, where long-time members played in farm systems in the backwoods of the South with teammates who were all white. There were certainly racists on the teams. That’s when, at ages 18 and 19, they formed their ideas about what defines a qualified person. These are the same people who are managers and general managers of today’s teams. The game still has people who don’t have an educated perspective and who are not open-minded enough to say they need to reach beyond their personal knowledge base to find qualified individuals who may not look like them. We need to talk about the issue.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also suggest changing the focus of youth. What do you mean by that?
Shropshire: I wish there were a way to get kids focused on other professional opportunities beyond sports. A high percentage of kids, and not just African-American youth, think they are going to end up in the NBA. Too many kids think they will become stars. I’m working on an essay right now that looks at how they can use that energy and put it toward other opportunities outside sports. And if they can’t get away from it, I wish they would try to get involved in some other aspect of the business, such as becoming a lawyer, agent or accountant for the teams. There are so many more opportunities off the field than there are on the field.