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Kobe On Royal: Milwaukee Bucks guard Royal Ivey attempts to drive past Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe On Royal: Milwaukee Bucks guard Royal Ivey attempts to drive past Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
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The Athlete Formerly Known As... Perhaps feeling that his given name didn't match well with football, Rod Smart briefly went by the sobriquet "He Hate Me." Here, he's seen running in a Carolina Panthers game.
The Athlete Formerly Known As... Perhaps feeling that his given name didn't match well with football, Rod Smart briefly went by the sobriquet "He Hate Me." Here, he's seen running in a Carolina Panthers game. Craig Jones/Getty Images
After each World Series game, a reporter in the Rays clubhouse will invariably ask B.J. Upton, David Price, Cliff Floyd, Edwin Jackson or Carl Crawford what his status as an African-American athlete in the World Series will mean for young black kids who may be torn between baseball and other sports.
That the Rays' five black players constitute a bona fide news hook should tell you about the state of race and baseball. The Phillies have two African-American players on the active roster — Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard — which is why every day there is a different reporter working this story.
To their credit, the players more than put up with the repetitive questions. They don't say, "Why don't you ask Rocco Baldelli about opportunities for whites from Rhode Island?"
The Players Speak
David Price speaks with passion, and I haven't seen him nudge the reporters by saying, "You know, my mom is white." He seems genuine in his desire to address the issue, and like Upton, Howard and Floyd, he speaks with insight about why baseball is so unpopular among black youngsters.
The players say it's a cultural thing more than an opportunity thing. I asked Price if he thought that basketball allowed for more cultural expression than baseball, and he didn't think that was it — though Lastings Milledge, in order to fit in with the Mets' culture, did trim his dreadlocks.
But a thought occurred to me as I stood next to David, B.J., Cliff and Ryan. And no, I'm not on a first-name basis with them — but the thought was actually about first names.
Check out the first names of the players I've already mentioned. We all know both white people and black people with those names.
Now check out another unit: the 2008 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team. Along with Jason and a couple of Chrises, there's a Kobe, a LeBron, a Deron, a Tayshaun, and a Carmelo.
The Academics Speak
The names of black athletes, like the names of everyone, say something about their backgrounds. Economist Steven Leavitt, alongside Harvard researcher Roland G. Fryer Jr., has studied names and race.
Their 2004 paper's summary notes that, "Among Blacks born in the last two decades, names provide a strong signal of socioeconomic status, which was not previously the case."
It also notes that distinctive names abound — most especially among blacks "living in racially isolated neighborhoods."
A glance at the first names of the black players in Major League Baseball reveals that there are two Garys, two Rays, a Matt, a Dave and a Josh. The only unusual or African-American first names I noted were Delmon, Orlando, Dontrelle, Lastings, Rondell, Covelli (Coco Crisp's real name), Prince and Jermaine.
I would say the vast majorities of guys named Dmitri are white, but of non-Russian Dmitris — who knows?
Oh, also: LaTroy Hawkins was left off the list for some reason — I think he was hurt. And Terrmel Sledge was on the 2007 list, but he played in Japan last year.
Another also: I know a couple of the players on that list are of mixed race, like Derek Jeter. And Grady Sizemore — whose African-American ancestry might surprise even die-hard baseball fans.
The Cool Factor
The reason this might be worth thinking about has to do with David Price's assertion that baseball isn't cool with blacks. It seems it's even less cool with blacks who also give their children unique or distinctly African-American names.
To quote from Levitt's Freakonomics:
What kind of parent is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated, teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself. Giving a child a super-black name would seem to be a black parent's signal of solidarity with her community — the flip side of the "acting white" phenomenon.
I think the first names of professional black athletes are, to some degree, a reflection on this phenomenon. Here are some more data.
Rather than just cherry-pick LaDainians or Laveranueses as examples from the NFL, I went with a more random sample: the rosters of Arizona, Atlanta and Washington.
Arizona: Anquan, Calais, Early, Edgerrin, Dominique, Antrel, Terrelle, Jerame, and Jerheme.
Atlanta: Jamaal (x2), Antoine, Chevis, Renardo, Domonique, Lawyer, Kindal, Jerious, and Laurent (I didn't count Ovie, because it's a Nigerian name — or Kroy and Coy because... they're white).
Washington: Roderick (x2), Ladell, Khary, Demetric, London, Kedric, Kareem, Erasmus, LaRon, Santana, Rock, and Antwaan.
I didn't (couldn't) do a racial breakdown of each team. But if you go by the league-wide statistic that about 70 percent of the players are black, one can assume that 112 of the players on those three teams are black. And 32 of that number have unusual or distinct African-American names.
So it's reasonable to assume that 25 percent of black players in the NFL have distinct or unusual names — whereas only 12 percent of the black athletes in all of baseball have similar names.
And no — I'm not using "unusual" as a synonym for "distinct." I am well aware that Jamaal is not at all an unusual name — but it is, statistically speaking, nearly entirely African-American.
Names And Values
And one more thing, in a litany of "one more things": Please don't get the impression that I think less of unique names — or of the people who have them. In fact, I judge them on a case-by-case basis.
Lastings Milledge was so named because his mother intended to have no more children after him. That's a ready-made anecdote whenever anyone asks him, "Why's that your name?"
Prince Fielder, on the other hand, has a name that implies his father is a king. Prince doesn't talk to his dad anymore, by the way.