Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Sports Reflect Society's Changing Makeup

Commentator Frank Deford reflects on how certain races dominate certain sports. He says it's a phenomenon that fails to reflect America's diversity. But it's changing, just like the rest of our society.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Jon was talking about baseball's all-stars. Commentator Frank Deford has been thinking about the kinds of people who become stars in all sports.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

There were mutterings in the off-season that the New York Mets general manager, a Dominican-American, was stuffing the roster with too many Hispanics. And as much as the Mets came into this All-Star break with the best record in the National League, though, these complaints have largely subsided.

But anyway, it's not as if the Mets are particularly out of step. More than a quarter of today's major leaguers were born outside the United States, most of them from the Caribbean.

The Dominican Republic, with a population about the size of Georgia, accounts for more than ten percent of the major league population. And the Latin influence is only going to grow more prominent. Almost half - yes, almost half - of all minor leaguers are now foreign born.

But then, most sports are demographically out of whack with the general population, and it's always been that way. It's just that, because we see sports as such a democratic institution, that our ideals are jarred when reality doesn't match fond illusion.

What's the most notorious sports statistic of the year? Well, how about 46 out of 47. How many times did we hear that 46 of the 47 varsity lacrosse players at Duke were white? But Duke lacrosse is no more out of line racially in its sport than the Mets are in theirs.

For a lot of socio-economic reasons, lacrosse has historically been a game played mostly by whites, just as geography makes hockey such a predominantly white sport because of its northern demographics, and NASCAR such a predominantly white sport because of its segregated southern heritage.

Basketball and football are now dominated by blacks. Those are the in sports in the African-American community. Baseball is out. As recently as 1975, 27 percent of major leaguers were black. Now, it's just nine percent. And baseball is crying that something must be done to reverse this decline.

But I doubt that sports themselves can artificially attract certain types of Americans, any more than you can sell soul food in the Hamptons or country music in Harlem.

Playing sports is so much more a matter of taste and fashion and culture. Economics matters so much, too. Tiger Woods, for example, may be a racial anomaly in golf, but he learned the game from his father just like most of the white guys on tour. In fact, slight as it was, the PGA tour used to have a larger African-American presence. But in those days, the country club wasn't the only route to the first tee.

Young golfers of modest circumstance, black and white, came into the game as caddies. Since golf carts replaced caddies, though, there are no more Charlie Siffords or Lee Trevinos or Sam Sneads either.

So stop worrying about it. No sport is ever going to be proportionally balanced, racially or ethnically. In fact, as diverse a nation as we may be, an argument could be made that most sports are trending more homogeneous than ever before.

But you see, this very much mirrors our society at large, where we are now such a nation of niches. We watch our channels, we listen to our music, and we play our games.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Frank Deford, who found his niche as senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us every Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford