6

A Level Playing Field?
Sports and Discrimination

Lawrence M. Kahn

Cornell University

Economists and the public at large have become increasingly interested in the issue of discrimination in sports. The public perceives that to some degree the sports business is an oasis of equal economic opportunity for minorities, who in this setting are judged and compensated solely on the basis of their performance. This impression is underscored by the high level of minority representation in our major team sports. As of the mid 1990s, Major League Baseball (MBL) was about 30 percent black, the National Football League (NFL) was 65 percent black, and black players made up 80 percent of the National Basketball Association's (NBA's) ranks (Staudohar 1996). Further, some of the highest paid athletes are black: some multiyear NBA contracts for black players top $100 million; in baseball, a majority of the players who made at least $8 million in 1998 were black, despite the 30 percent black representation in the MLB; and in the NFL, while most of the highest paid players in 1997 were quarterbacks (a disproportionately white position, as I will discuss later), there were many prominent, highly paid black players as well.

Despite this evidence of economic achievement, there is an ominous undercurrent in the treatment of black professional athletes. Until the 1940s, of course, black players were excluded from professional team sports. And while African Americans are well-represented as players in the 1990s, they are much less likely to be coaches, managers, or executives for sports teams. Anecdotal accounts of team sports identify many instances in which African-American players perceived quotas against them, even in basketball, which as noted, is overwhelmingly black (Bradley 1976; Halberstam 1981). In 1987, a baseball

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