Even at a time when the nation is divided over the border and sanctuary laws, many of us are united in our enjoyment of sports. The second weekend in April saw dramatic matchups in golf, basketball and baseball, reinforcing the idea of sports as social medicine, dissolving differences, and heightening affinity based on the love for ball movement.
On the final day of the 2019 Masters golf championship game on Sunday , forty-three-year-old Tiger Woods clinched a historic victory with a bogey on the final hole. The previous day, at the Oakland Coliseum, thirty-one-year-old Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry floated one three-pointer after another in the first Western Conference Playoff game against the Clippers. And at Oracle Park in San Francisco, late Friday evening, thirty-eight-year-old catcher Erik Kratz worked 18 innings as the San Francisco Giants ultimately defeated the Colorado Rockies.
“Sports shapes us, it heals us, it empowers us, it connects us. It does what government so often promises to do but doesn’t deliver,” said Fox sportscaster Colin Cowherd summarizing the effect of Tiger Woods’ electrifying performance during the weekend’s tournament.
The demography of sports encapsulates the story of diversity in the nation. Over time, the business of sports recruitment has resulted in some races and ethnicities dominating in various leagues, seasons and teams.
According to an analysis done by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), in the 2017 NBA roster, those who identified as Black or African American comprised 74.4 percent of all NBA players, while 80.9 percent of players were people of color. A quarter of the NBA player roster had international players during the 2016-2017. In the current Golden State Warriors roster, 15 out of the 17 players are people of color and the two who are not are from Sweden and Australia.
The story is very different with Major League Baseball. Even on Jackie Robinson Day, which was celebrated on Monday, April 15, as the day in history that the color barrier was breached in baseball, several news stories acknowledged that the league has not been able to increase its African American/Black player representation. Bryan Murphy, managing editor of the McCovey Chronicles, noted in his MLB Chronicles column: “Still, in all the time since Robinson took that courageous first step, the number of African-American players in MLB never exceeded the 20 percent mark.” Instead, as the proportion of African American players in MLB went down in the last few decades, it was replaced by an increasing Latino player population. The number of players from Latin American countries rose from 0.7 percent in 1947, when Robinson debuted, to 27 percent in 2016 and the number of players born in other countries reached a high of 254 in 2018. The SF Giants active roster shows three players from Venezuela and one from the Dominican Republic.
These player trends can be ascribed less to the population demographics in America, than to who the fans are, cultural acceptance and how accessible the sport is.
There are far more Caucasians watching golf and baseball than basketball and you see those fan representations reflected in who plays and how well they play. Nielsen reports that the majority of NBA television viewers are of African American heritage—which, in part, explains the preponderance of that ethnicity among NBA players. The reverse also holds true because fans tend to identify with athletes. “Athletic teams offer not just a connection with the players and fellow fans, but also with regional pride, family relationships, color preferences, aesthetic tastes and even moral standards,” states Eric Simon, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.”
When it comes to equity and accessibility, there are more basketball courts than baseball fields, and basketball requires less equipment, remarks Murphy. Besides the cost of learning to play baseball has risen, with uniforms costing between $200 to $500, and playing out of state tournaments can range upwards of $3,500 per year. “That means underprivileged kids of any ethnicity in the United States just don’t have the same opportunity,” Murphy adds. The situation is the same with golf, which is a sport that’s far too expensive for many to afford, and hence less accessible for minority and less affluent populations.
Even if baseball has a thorny dilemma to overcome, it must be acknowledged that Robinson opened the doors for anyone, from anywhere, to have the opportunity to become part of a competitive American league. This shrank the world, increased global competitiveness and made American baseball more diverse. Exactly what immigration is supposed to achieve.
But diversity on the arena isn’t necessarily in my frame of reference when I watch the performance of great athletes. For those few hours, I am able to tune out the noise of contentious politics and chisel individual categorizations down to skill, acumen and potential.
So it was on those three days in April, watching three spectacular games and the remarkable athletes playing them. But it was Tiger Woods’ performance that stole the show. Displaying impressive resilience and fortitude, Woods pulled a single stroke ahead of his much younger competitors, to win the 2019 Masters Tournament and make perhaps the greatest comeback victory in the history of sports. It was a singular moment for America. And it gave me hope.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan