Sports are often sold as the great equalizer. Yet time and again, the sports meritocracy is proven to be a myth.
Why it matters: In theory, sports are an escape. In reality, they are a mirror — often perpetuating the most unjust aspects of society.
- "We tend to think of sports as being at the forefront of racial progress," says Damion Thomas, sports curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
- "But historically, sports have also been symbols of oppression that reinforce negative stereotypes."
The big picture: At each step along the athlete's journey — from youth sports to college to the professional world — there are glaring inequities, often along racial lines.
- Youth: The widening accessibility gap in youth sports has led to historically low participation and ended a disproportionate number of minority children's athletic careers before they even started. Read more about race and youth sports.
- College: Universities generate millions of dollars in revenue off the backs of predominantly Black football and basketball players, while affluent sports like fencing help funnel rich white athletes to elite institutions. Read more about race and college athletes.
- Post-playing career: Many retired athletes stay around the game, but in leagues like the NFL, there's a lack of opportunity for minority candidates. People of color make up over 75% of NFL players but only 12.5% of the head coaches and 6.5% of the general managers. Read more about race and team ownership.
Between the lines: It's not just the way sports are structured that can limit people of color and perpetuate stereotypes; it's also the way we talk about those sports.
- A 2020 study found that soccer commentary is full of racial bias, with white players more likely to be credited with an admirable work ethic and Black players often reduced to their physical abilities.
- "It's not that Black players can't be fast and powerful," wrote SB Nation's Zito Madu. "It's that in soccer, too often, it is the only thing they can be."
The backdrop: Throughout history, white American athletes have been afforded the opportunity to improve unimpeded while minorities have been left to scratch and claw for every inch.
- Jackie Robinson wasn't the first Black ballplayer good enough for the majors and Kim Ng wasn't the first woman worthy of running a baseball team. They were just the first to break through doors that had previously been shut.
Looking ahead: For all the work that remains, and the unfortunate fact it's taken so long to accomplish what still feels like so little, there's reason to be optimistic about the future.
- In 2020, athletes of color fully realized the power of their collective voice, driving the national conversation and inspiring change in ways their predecessors could only dream about.
- And with new legislation that will allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, at least one part of the system will begin its long-awaited course correction.