Sport and Social Mobility
among African-American and
Merrill J. Melnick
An important component of the promotional ideology of sport is the notion that success in athletics can, and often does, lead to career success away from the court, field, or diamond. Conventional wisdom holds that the lessons learned in the crucible of athletic competition prepare athletes to meet the vicissitudes of the workplace. As stated in Dun and Bradstreet Reports, "the professional athlete's discipline, competitiveness, team-playing ability, and expectation of success can mold him into a top-flight business executive." 1 Evidence for the assumed linkage between athletic participation and success in later life often takes the form of personal testimonies, anecdotal data, or "Where are they now?" surveys. For example, among the forty-four former members of an outstanding 1963 University of Pittsburgh football team, there are fifteen dentists, three physicians, a chiropractor, six educators, five engineers, three lawyers, four corporate executives, a banker, two NFL assistant coaches, a college coach, two stockbrokers, and a bookmaker. 2
Sport sociologists have been generally skeptical about the purported social mobility benefits that are believed to accrue through athletic participation. As Jay Coakley writes, "involvement in top-level competitive sport has not been found to be systematically linked to social mobility in subsequent careers." 3 While many sport sociologists generally adhere to this view, others are of the opinion that, in varying circumstances, athletic participation does contribute to the athlete's social advancement, and this is particularly so for racial and ethnic minorities.
The fact is, social scientific understanding of the relationship between athletic participation and social mobility is muddled by the limited amount of systematic research to date as well as its methodological limitations. In a review of the related research, Jomills Braddock noted that generalizations