Tennis Anyone? Race and Class Still Matter in Sports

Here we go again. Yet another basketball player had the nerve to play a sport, receive a large check in lieu of the Horatio Alger meta-narrative that one can easily pull oneself up by their bootstraps and make it by hard work and determination in a fair and democratic society. Thank goodness there is equity and democracy. I just read a newspaper article filled with the rhetoric about how young, elite athletes, those who play basketball and football, should care more about their education — assuming that they do not. I am still asking, who was concerned when Nancy Kerrigan decided to skate or when Michael Phelps decided to swim? In fact, while he isn’t an athlete, who asked Bill Gates to stay at Harvard instead of making billions of dollars? No one ever seems to question why sports such as golf and tennis allow you to turn pro while in school. Who makes that decision? Why can’t ya do both?

Play sports and excel in the classroom — now there’s a novel idea. I have another question: Who decides which sports allow an athlete to play professionally while in high school or forgo higher education altogether? How do they decide which sports require some arbitrary number of years of college attendance? My two cents? The decision about who should attend and forgo a lofty paycheck, and which sports, has something to do with SES and a lot to do with race. In fact, I am suspicious of the sort of attention and care that folks claim to have for basketball and football players. I am just not buying it. In fact, I’m with Paulo Freire on this one, sounds like false generosity. If we are all so concerned about sports participation, education and the future of all athletes, then spread the love, no pun intended, to sports like tennis. Save the kids at the racquet club. They are spending lots of money and time there too. But no one is writing commentary about how much they are spending to push their kids into sports. Funny.

For instance, my son chose tennis as his sport so we purchased a membership to a racquet club. I also pay a pro to teach private lessons two hours per week, and I pay additional money for several hours a week for group lessons. I can afford it. After all, my first name is Dr. and that credibility lends me some accoutrements at the racquet club. Wait until they find out that I’m not an M.D. Our credit line may be cut off and then I’ll be in dire need of a payment plan.

Nevertheless, membership at the “club” has some privy. My son picks up a pair of $100 tennis shoes and a $200 racquet at least once per month, which he charges to my house account. They have those sorts of things for members at the racquet club. It is nothing more than a lay-away. Wal-Mart got rid of theirs, but the ritzy racquet club keeps that revolving charge open for the moneyed folks (and un-moneyed like me). Kids at the club are assumed to perform well in school and do well on the court, so all is right with the world — at least those who participate in the world of tennis. My son’s pro coach tells me that he should consider going pro. And, no, he is not raked through the coals for considering the thought. Ah, the sweet life of perceived upper SES. You can think about doing other things besides being forever grateful to everyone or waiting for the right movie star to save you from your cultural capitaless group. In fact, many of the kids at the club, including their parents, are working on rankings, going pro and scholarships — unapologetically. After all, according to the upper crust at the racquet club, you can do both!

Hmmm … let’s think about choices? Not the same story in the world of basketball or football. When some kids make a shoe purchase, it’s all but in the newspaper, and sometimes it is in the newspaper [emphasis added]. When a kid decides to attend a sports camp, folks say, “They are wasting their time on a foolish dream where the odds of becoming pro (whether the kid has the dream or not) are against them.” All sorts of folks start writing commentary on the ills of sports and how all Black kids and their families are lost souls with no interest in education. Ah, the deficit model. Funny, I have yet to hear a parent at the racquet club be told that they are wasting their time or money on those expensive tennis lessons and no one EVEN knows the statistics about who becomes a pro and who does not. They all just assume we can do both. Yet, the counter meta-narrative devotes a significant amount of time to the evils of basketball and football and their shiftless parents. Their values and morals are on trial. I am not saying that some folks don’t get a clouded vision about devoting so much time to sport. They do. But this is true for all kinds of sporting events and probably more specifically to those sports where folks are routinely racially discriminated against throughout ALL other aspects of life. Instead, what I am suggesting is that, not only can people do both, but, more importantly, I am also suggesting that the rhetoric changes when the sport is overwhelmingly and demographically colorized and wrapped in socioeconomic status, so to speak.

The entire discourse changes to include a language of care and concern about the “plight” and education of poor, little, colored athletes (yes, I said colored), yet nothing seems to happen to address the structural inequities that are prevalent for groups of those same students when they do not play sports. In other words, what about the “students of color,” males in particular, who do not participate in revenue-generating sports but never finish college? Uh, the graduation rate is about the same. Duh-uh.

So, geesh, what are we to do? I have an idea. Perhaps we should start looking at the structural or systemic issues that might push certain students into the direction of professional sports. Ever asked students why they believe that playing football and basketball may be real career choices? Let’s turn on the TV tonight or watch a movie or look at employment and university statistics this weekend and see how folks of color are portrayed in the media. In fact, let’s take a look at our own meritocratic, caring college campuses. I think warning students away from careers like professional sports, in particular basketball and football, merely scratches the surface of a bigger discussion — called structural and institutionalized racism. But that would mean we might have to sniff our own funky laundry. Like my 20-something graduate students say … I’m just saying.

 Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in higher education student affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.