When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during an NFL game late last August, he energized discussions on race and its place in sports.
His stance fueled online and in-person discussions about freedom and identity in professional sports — a conversation that’s long been ignored in the historically white-dominated Major League Baseball.
But Kaepernick’s action brought the issue to the surface among ball players, as baseballers began to question what race means in their own sport. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones lauded Kaepernick for his actions but told USA Today Sports in September 2016 that nothing similar would happen in baseball because it’s a “white man’s sport.”
He has a point: the MLB does have issues with race and diversity. The number of minority players in the game has never been great and the number of African-American baseball players is declining in recent decades. But that doesn’t mean baseball is becoming “whiter” or that the league isn’t doing anything about its race issue. Even though the African-American population in baseball has dropped since its highest point in 1971, the overall minority population in baseball has increased.
When Jackie Robinson first began playing in 1947, the league was 98.3 percent white. Three and a half decades later, the MLB boasted the largest percentage of African-American players in its history yet — 18.7 — leaving it 70 percent white and 11 percent Latino. The number of African-Americans playing the sport professionally dropped to a little more than 8 percent by 2016 and the number of white players dropped as well over this period falling to less than 60 percent, as more players from the Caribbean and Latin America rose to 28.5 percent and Asian players to 1.7 percent.
To compare, the National Basketball Association in the 2015-2016 season weighed in at 74 percent African-American, 18 percent white and 6 percent Latino. And the National Football League in the same year was almost 70 percent African-American, 27 percent white, 2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and less than 1 percent Latino. So while the MLB may be the lowest in terms of African-American players, it can boast the most widely diverse makeup of any of these professional sport organizations.
Despite the criticism, professional sport leagues have also garnered some praise for their levels of diversity. Richard Lapchick — the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports — creates a report each year, called the Racial and Gender Report Card, to assess the hiring practices of minorities in leading professional sports organizations in the United States. Lapchick uses the gender and racial makeup of players, coaches and front office employees to give organizations a letter grade. The NFL, NBA and MLB all earned an A+ in player diversity rating in his 2016 report.
So while it’s fair for Jones to say baseball lacks African-American players, by calling baseball just a “white man’s game,” he’s ignoring the progress of the sport and its context within other pro sports.The MLB is no less diverse than the NBA and NFL.
Which isn’t to say that there is, as always, room for baseball and those making the decisions in the MLB to improve when it comes to African-American players and diversity in general. The future of baseball, just like all of America, lies in our youth. The challenge for the MLB moving forward is to incorporate varying cultures into America’s game and attract more young fans who will turn into players as they grow up.
The median age of a baseball fan is 53 years old, meaning the sport lacks a vital young fan base. With more than 40 percent of millennials identifying as something other than non-Hispanic whites, today’s young people are more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before, according to a 2015 study from Pew Research Center.
So while a big problem for baseball is that it cannot attract young fans in general, the stigma around baseball as a white man’s game means it’s even harder for the league to attract young African-American, Latino, Asian or other diverse fans as well. If the MLB wants to recruit a new class of players that is more reflective of the future of America, it’s wise to start getting those young people passionate about baseball now.
Although it’s not immune to criticism, we also must compliment the MLB for taking steps in the right direction. Major League Baseball launched the RBI — Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities — program in 1989 with the goal of fostering and maintaining skills and interest in baseball among kids, and developing their talent to become ball players. In the long-term, this will hopefully give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a better shot at making it in professional sports.
More than 120,000 children in 185 cities around the world are already involved in the program. To compare, the Boys & Girls Club of America impacted nearly 4 million kids and young adults in the United States in 2015. But since the RBI is sponsored by the MLB — which brings in $237 million per team each year — the amount of resources available to the now 20-year-old program means it probably can and should extend its reach even wider by recruiting more kids, especially those from disadvantaged communities who need an outlet the most.
The World Baseball Classic, founded in 2005, also provides opportunities to incorporate different baseball cultures into the same game. Since major leaguers can play for their own countries in the Classic, the games help connect fans from all around the world and promotes cross cultural understanding and friendships among players and fans. Programs like these, that bring cultures and diversity together, should be more common in baseball and all sports.
Jose Bautista wrote an article for The Player’s Tribune, a media outlet founded by Derek Jeter in 2014 that publishes content written by professional athletes, where he explained misunderstandings that arise from players who grow up in different baseball cultures. He wrote about playing the game emotionally, like they do in his home country, the Dominican Republic, and how flipping a bat after a triumphant hit can be seen as disrespectful for many. But for Bautista, it’s just how he expresses his emotions.
“It’s true. I’m different. I come from a different baseball culture. But so what? Why does that have to be a bad thing? The beautiful thing about America is that it’s a melting pot,” he wrote.
Bautista’s thoughts symbolize the importance of differences and how they contribute to a growing understanding of cross culturalism through baseball. And we shouldn’t be ignoring these cultural differences with the excuse of preserving America’s game, we should be embracing them.
Bautista is right. Like apple pie, infomercials and institutional racism, baseball is about as American as it gets. The MLB needs to diversify — and celebrate the diversity it already has — to attract a fanbase and a culture that represents the America we live in today.
Matthew primarily writes on politics and social issues in sports for The Pitt News.