Collegiate sports, and athletic scholarships in particular, have served as portals to higher education for generations of African-Americans who may not have otherwise attended college. That s not the case for Latinos.
Hispanic men and women represented just 4.5 and 3.9 percent, respectively, of student-athletes in the NCAA during the 2008-09 academic year. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of Hispanics playing college sports grew at a glacial pace, from 3 to 4.2 percent, even as Hispanic students have become more prevalent on college campuses--12 percent of students were Hispanic in 2007, according to Census data. Hispanics account for 15.8 percent of the U.S. population. Although lagging in college sports, Latinos are a rising power in professional sports; Latinos dominate boxing, soccer and baseball. Major League Baseball's Hispanic superstars, such as Chicago White Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez and New York Yankees third baseman Mex Rodriguez, rank among America's highest-paid professional athletes. In June, the Memphis Grizzlies selected former University of Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, the 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Despite their growing presence in sports, relatively few Latinos play sports in college, even in baseball and soccer where they are overrepresented at the professional level. The college sports with the highest percentage of Hispanic men were volleyball (12.3 percent) and water polo (7.3 percent), reflecting their popularity in California and Florida. For women, they were rugby (15.2 percent) and water polo (7.3 percent).
"Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority group in the country. However, the demographics of our [NCAA] member institutions do not reflect this growth in the student-athlete population," says Mark Cabrera, a soccer player at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Scholars and sports personnel note specific structural, cultural and educational issues preventing more Latinos from using their athletic talents as a ladder to college.
A major difference between the Black and Hispanic experience in sports is that, under segregation, African-Americans developed independent sports structures that paralleled White organizations. Black colleges fielded basketball, football, baseball and other sports teams. The Negro Leagues often recruited baseball players from HBCUs. Black communities established a deep college pipeline of sports talent ready to seize athletic opportunities.
By contrast, Latinos are overrepresented at community colleges that typically don't offer a full sports program or athletic scholarships. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 53 percent of Latino undergraduates attend two-year institutions.
In addition, there's little incentive for Latinos to play collegiate sports if their goal is to play professionally. While college is the recruiting grounds for professional football and basketball--sports that Latinos are just starting to make headway in--it is not a pipeline for professional boxing and soccer, the sports most associated with Hispanics. Major League Baseball maintains a minor league system that doesn't require college.
Another barrier to Hispanic participation in college sports is that many parents can't give their children access to organized sports training at a young age.
"Unlike African-Americans, Latinos have not been drilled from birth that sports are a way out of poverty," says Richard Lap-chick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
He says that, because of equipment costs or difficulties with their parents providing transportation, relatively few Hispanics play Little League baseball or Pop Warner football. As a result, fewer develop the skills needed to make the middle and high school or club teams that could get them noticed by college coaches. …