Racial Composition of NBA, NFL, and MLB Teams and Racial Composition of Franchise Cities

By Leonard, Wilbert M., II | Journal of Sport Behavior, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Racial Composition of NBA, NFL, and MLB Teams and Racial Composition of Franchise Cities


Leonard, Wilbert M., II, Journal of Sport Behavior


The founding of the major professional sport leagues of baseball, football, and basketball occupy centrally significant portions of the U.S. sports history. Although their ages vary--baseball is the eldest at nearly 125 years old, basketball is the youngest at 50, and football is 75--they all commenced as all-white enclaves. From being lily white in player composition at their conception, today African-Americans comprise approximately 79% of NBA rosters, 65% of NFL line ups, and 18% of MLB teams (about 18 % of MLB players are Hispanic). Obviously there has been a skyrocketing in African-American participation (Lapchick & Benedict, 1994).

There are both social and non-social forces contributing to this increase, e.g., federal legislation, racial climate, athletic prowess, opportunities, etc. However, since sports are a business guided by the profit motive, the role of economics, broadly speaking, cannot be eschewed. While media contracts have become increasingly important to professional sport franchises, gate receipts are still significant, although their contributions to total revenue varies from one sport to the next (Oxanian, 1994). In addressing the role of the profit motive in baseball, Coakley (1994) argued that major league management realized it was losing potential revenue at the gate by denying minorities access to the ballparks. Nevertheless, the number of African-American fans in the ballpark, arena, and/or stadium is still small, proportionately speaking, in football and basketball (Staples, 1987). On the other hand, the number of African-American basketball spectators is considerably higher (according to Staples, 1987, African-Americans account for 17%, 7.5% and 6.8% of the attendance in the NBA, NFL, and MLB professional sporting events). There may be some truth to Stepien's (former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers) assertion that "... White people have to have white heroes. I myself can't equate [sic] to black heroes" (Karabel & Karen, 1982, p. 23).

Today, racism appears to take a variety of forms, and even sportscasters, hall-of-fame selection committees, sport executives, and owners have been judged racially bigoted (Coakley, 1994). Three contemporary aspects of sport that appear to be racially biased surround (a) position allocation, (b) performance differentials, and (c) reward and authority structures (Leonard, 1993).

Over a decade ago Karabel and Karen (1982) empirically explored several racially based questions in the NBA. They discovered a direct correlation between the number of African-Americans on NBA teams and the percentage of African-Americans in the "MSA's" (metropolitan statistical areas) in which the franchises were located. Specifically, in cities with African-American populations of less than 10%, 10 - 20%, and more than 20%, the percentages of African-Americans on the team were 64, 73, and 87, respectively. In short, the correlation between the number of African-Americans on NBA teams and the percentage of African-Americans in the cities in which these franchises were located was positive. They concluded (Karabel & Karen, 1982), "Our findings, . . . are more than sufficient to establish that the NBA is anything buy color-blind. . . . Professional basketball is still a long way from meritocracy [sic]. And the economics of the box office suggest that the path to true color blindness may be a tortuous one indeed" (p. 23). Ballinger (1981) echoed this position when he wrote:

The NBA is segregated against blacks. Not just because so few black fans can afford to attend the games . . . black players are kept out of the NBA solely on account of their color. There is a city-by-city quota system. The result is that the whiter the city the whiter the team . . . The coaches don't pick the team; the market does. (p. 56).

Myers (1991) reported that teams such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio- with large proportions of whites-typically have "whiter" rosters than teams such as Detroit, Atlanta, and Washington, D. …

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