Following up on my post last month on race and sports, let’s note admitted Mets fan Chris Rock monologuing about black America’s lack of interest in baseball these days.
The basic argument of my first post is that pro teams reflect the kids who grow up playing and watching that particular sport (as opposed to any sort of innate racial advantage), and nowhere is that more evident than today’s MLB. It isn’t actually as white as Chris Rock is saying, as any Red Sox fan can attest — the NHL earns the distinction of North America’s whitest pro league. But the non-whites are largely Hispanics from the Caribbean, where kids are most definitely into baseball. Black kids in America, not so much.
Rock blames stuffy traditionalism as what alienates today’s black kids from the sport. I’m sure that has something to do with it. Baseball is just not considered cool by black kids these days, and if black kids consider your sport uncool, you better have a good backup plan or your sport is in deep doo-doo. The milky-white NHL will never pull down NFL-size numbers for this reason — but on the other hand, it will never wither away either because it is the official state religion of Canada, and only one of its seven teams has an average attendance record of less than 100%. Meanwhile, only three MLB teams break 90% on average; even the vaunted Yankees sit at a relatively anemic 81.5% according to ESPN. (By comparison, only one NFL team averaged less than 90% attendance in 2014, and that was a subpar team dogged by rumors of abandoning its city yet again.)
Ultimately, I think it is less of a specifically racial problem and more of a youth problem… but baseball has an opportunity. More and more parents are refusing to let their kids play football due to the injury issue, and baseball has a chance to snatch away some of those youths if it plays its cards right. It needs to figure out how to make Little League and high school baseball cool again… and if ad agencies can make mediocre, overpriced headphones the must-have cool accessory for urban males by slapping Dre’s name on them, then I have faith they could do the same for MLB. Maybe give Kim Kardashian’s husband a 1% interest in the league, rebrand it “Baseball by Yeezy” and we’re now back on track.
People who like to argue for inherent differences between the races (i.e., people who can be referred to with the shorthand of “racists”) love to point to sports as undeniable proof of fundamental differences between white and black people. This is important to racists because, if they can prove that blacks are fundamentally and inherently different at basketball, they can then argue that they are fundamentally different in other areas more dear to the racist heart. Such as intelligence.
For instance, take the above photo. You may recognize them as the team currently on its way to the NCAA championship as of this writing, and you may recognize their coach as the man who is worse than Hitler. Anyway, note that the team is 25% white and 75% black. A team like this recruits from the entire country for their “one and done” system, of course. This is more lopsided even than the NCAA’s official statistics from a few years ago, stating that African-Americans make up 57.2% of Division 1 men’s basketball players, whereas whites make up 29.4%. (Keep in mind that many Division 1 schools are far less competitive than UK and compared to them, practically field guys right off the street.) However, blacks make up 13% of the population of America. “Outsized representation” doesn’t even begin to describe it. At the college level, African-Americans are just destroying their white competition in general.
So that’s all she wrote, correct? It’s a slam dunk, if you can forgive the pun. Whites and blacks are fundamentally different.
Well, here’s the thing. I haven’t mentioned pro ball yet.
This… starts to get a bit more complicated.
African-Americans still make a plurality, sure, including our oft-injured friend Mr. Rose there at the bottom. But they represent just 50% of the current Chicago Bulls roster, a team that made the playoffs. White boys make up the other 50%. What gives? Maybe the Bulls have yet another racist owner?
Things start to make more sense if you look at the white guys’ last names. Two of them have names clearly from Europe. This is an increasing trend in the NBA — their official site notes how Europe is by far the biggest international pipeline for the NBA. Those guys are just as melanin-challenged as I am. And while I’m no geography major, I’m fairly sure that Eastern Europe is a long way from subsaharan Africa. And their absence from the NCAA rosters makes sense, as they go through an entirely different path to the NBA.
The reason for the racial composition for basketball is simple. People play what they played in their youth, and many young Europeans sure as shit love basketball (even if soccer is forever #1 overall). If you want to know the future of a sport in X country, look to see what their youths and high schoolers are playing.
Here in NYC, street ball remains a big pastime, reflecting the importance it has in the black community. Baseball, on the other hand, has fallen out of favor with black youths, being played instead these days by two major constituencies of young people: poor whites, especially in the South, who (uniquely among American sports) often skip college entirely and go straight into the minors, as baseball players have for untold generations; and Hispanics, especially from the Caribbean. It’s no wonder that the typical MLB lineup reflects this — and the incredible ethnic diversity among Carribean Hispanics shreds to mincemeat any racist, essentialist explanation. Youth and school hockey, on the other hand, remains played primarily by whites from America, Canada, Europe and Russia, and therefore your average NHL club looks about as racially diverse as a Republican convention. The elite of soccer, of course, follow no easy trends as they represent just about the entire planet. And so forth.
In other words, it’s cultural after all.
I’m not saying that genes do not play a role in athletics, and I’m not saying that clusters of certain traits do not exist — Kenyans of a specific lineage basically own long-distance running. But that doesn’t say anything about runners from Nigeria or Botswana. And the most elite basketball players of the NCAA have great genes for that sport (it’s good to be tall no matter what your skin color), but more importantly, they spent their entire youths practicing their craft and preparing them for this moment. The latter is far more important in predicting success in their sports career. How many possible LeBrons are instead wasting their youth on the couch playing Halo?
Most surprising NFL team in 2014: Buffalo Bills. Not the Cowboys nor the Cardinals, both of whom had the pieces in place and if anything, had unfairly and unlucky mediocre records last year. The Bills have somehow pieced together a winning record (so far) using nothing but spare parts and duct tape. If there is a fan base more deserving to see their team play in January, I can’t think of which it might be. If the Pats collapse, as I feel they will, then the division is the Bills’ to lose. [update week 10: I stand by this, other than the bit about the Pats. They may still buy themselves a wild-card spot yet.]
Most disappointing NFL team in 2014: New Orlean Aints. I think it’s time to revive the moniker. How can a team with a Manning-level QB be so awful every year after their championship? It’s easy to point fingers at the defense, but Brees’ offense has been anemic at best as well. They’d be lucky to win the worst division in the league this year, but probably can’t even manage that due to the completely average and unremarkable Panthers. [update week 10: How you feel about this depends on how you feel about the referee’s call which cost them the game today. Personally, I think the worst aspect of NFL gameplay is seeing beautiful, miracle plays get completely cancelled by relatively minor penalties, such as some asshole on the other side of the field holding, or this defensive back flopping NBA-style after the Saints receiver barely touched him. That said, the Saints are not going to make the playoffs this year.]
Most overrated team: New England Patriots. Their record is better than they are, with their ridiculously cushy schedule so far as of week 7. Most of their wins have been less than ringing, with even the pathetic Jets coming within an ace of victory during the final drive, and the worst team in the NFL coming within a touchdown. Brady is in twilight, Gronk has been inconsistent at best, the wideouts are a confused mess. Only a halfway decent defense is letting them win — and who ever thought the Patriots of all teams would be relying on the defense? The Bill+Tom love story of Foxborough may finally be winding down. [update: well, not so much anymore. Brady exhibits that quality only elite-level players have: when faced with mounting losses, he only gets madder and more determined instead of more demoralized.]
Most underrated team: KC Chiefs. Yes, I am biased, but hear me out. Their only really shameful loss was to the lowly Titans, and that was the first week of the regular season when most of the pistons weren’t firing yet. But the offense learned quickly, puting up very respectable showings against the Broncos and the Niners, two of the strongest squads in the league. They blew out the Pats (see above) and squeaked out a road win against the always-dangerous Chargers. New TE Kelce is mentioned in the same breath as Tony G, and RB2 Knile Davis is proving almost as dangerous as his future-hall-of-famer colleague. And Eric Fisher is looking much better on the O-line his sophomore season. The wideouts remain an issue outside of Bowe, but this offense is still miles ahead of where they were last year. The D is not as overpowering as the first half of the 2013 season, true, but that is a tough standard to beat. [update: 3 weeks later, and this is even more justified than when I first wrote it. The running game was largely denied today, but they still found ways to find the win. The 2013 Chiefs were a one-trick pony. These Chiefs are decidedly not.]
Best team as of week 7: Dallas Cowboys. It was about time Jerry’s ‘Boys finally earned their “America’s Team” moniker. Romo always took more flak than he deserved. For instance, last year he put up 48 points against the red-hot Denver Broncos, and yet he still got blamed for the loss after the defense let Peyton run wild on them to the tune of 51 points. Dallas fans perhaps think he plays linebacker as well as defensive coordinator in addition to QB; I don’t know. And say what you will about Jerry Jones, but at least he is actually a football fan and a fan of his own team, unlike so many other NFL owners who will remain nameless. Jerry Jones is always celebrating in his owner’s box when his team is ahead. Many other owners are emotionless either way, probably too busy counting empty seats and wondering if they can jack up beer prices as opposed to caring about the product they are putting out on the field. Anyway, they are shaping up to be the 4th-quarter team to beat. [update: I stand by this. And Romo once again proved how underrated he is by his team’s relatively poor performance during his absence. The NFC conference finals will see the ‘Boys represented. Who their opponent will be is unclear as Carson Palmer may have torn his ACL again.]
Worst team as of week 7: Oakland Raiders. Hopeless. Disorganized. Blundering. Yes, this is the team those fans deserve. At this point, it seems that too many players have simply gotten used to losing and have accepted it, same as their former head coach before he was unceremoniously cashiered over the phone after week 4. No wonder they may be moving back to LA in a year or two. Interim head coach Tony Sparano, taking a break from his New Jersey mafia duties, and promising rookie Derek Carr seem like the only ones still trying, but they can’t do anything on their own. At least the fans can take solace that Matt Shaub isn’t their QB. Perhaps that can give them comfort during their weekly knife fights in the parking lot. [update: not exactly much arguing against any of this, is there? Maybe at this point they are just intentionally gunning for the #1 draft pick for their first season in their new city next year.]
Most likely Superbowl matchup as of week 7: Yes, it is pointless to make this sort of prediction this far out. That said: Broncos/Cowboys. Cowboys win 37-27. [update: I stand by this.]