Point: Sports Can Build Up Black Women in Society
I am always puzzled by Black people who, in an earnest attempt to encourage Black youngsters to consider careers in fields other than sports, resort to comments such as, “We don’t need any more Black athletes.”
Of course, it is true that only a few of those who pursue careers in professional sports wind up realizing their dreams. And there is a need for students to consider the vast number of opportunities in other professions. But does that mean we should be discouraging Black students from pursuing opportunities and careers in sports?
I think not.
The sporting industry continues to be a growing sector of the U.S. economy, and while African Americans have established a greater relative presence in sports than they have in other employment sectors, we continue to be under-represented both on and off the competitive field, in most sports.
African American women, in particular, are missing out on a vast number of opportunities in the world of sports.
Take, for example, the presence of African American women in collegiate basketball versus African American men in the same sport. While Black men comprised some 57 percent of all men competing on National Collegiate Athletics Association Division I teams in 1996-97, Black women accounted for only 30 percent of Division I women players, according to the most recent data released by Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
Among male students competing in Division I in all sports, Black men constitute 26 percent, but Blacks comprise only 11 percent of women players, the study says.
It also should be noted that overall, the percentage of Black students playing in the collegiate ranks has declined across the boards in recent years from 21.9 percent in 1991-92 to 20.4 percent in 1996-97.
Not only are Black women who don’t participate in sports missing out on chances to win scholarships — which can ease the financial burden of pursuing a college degree — they’re also losing out on the opportunity to travel and hone competitive skills that can yield lifelong benefits.
Certainly, playing on a collegiate team isn’t easy, requiring a student to adhere to a rigorous practice and study schedule. But with these challenges also come tremendous opportunities.
Studies have shown that women who play collegiate sports graduate at a significantly higher rate — 68 percent — than do other female students. Teenage girls who play sports are at less risk of teen pregnancy. And women who were active in sports and recreational activities in their youth tend to have greater confidence, self esteem and pride in their physical and social self-images as adults than those who did not play sports.
Beyond college, women today are enjoying greater access to careers in the sporting industry. The increased stature of women’s professional leagues in basketball and soccer, not to mention the opportunities in individual sports such as golf, tennis and track and field, means that there are opportunities for women to pursue careers as athletes that didn’t exist as recently as 10 years ago. Not to mention the opportunities in surrounding fields such as sports agency, team management, physical training and sports journalism.
Considering the extent to which Black women are disproportionately at risk for teen pregnancy, obesity, hypertension and diabetes — not to mention unemployment and other problems — maybe it is time for someone to launch an aggressive national campaign to encourage Black women to participate in sports.
African Americans are the only group of people I’ve ever heard discouraging their children from pursuing careers in fields in which others of the same race or ethnicity have already excelled. The problem isn’t that there are too many Black athletes. It is that we’ve not been able to replicate our success on the playing field in other career endeavors.
Heck, we’ve only recently begun to replicate the critical mass we have on the field in the sporting industry’s executive offices. But one reason we now have access to these executive jobs is because successful athletes like Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Jackie Joyner-Kersey helped to create those opportunities.
Rather than steering our kids away from sports, we should capitalize on our past success by encouraging as many who demonstrate the interest or the talent to go for it. We should especially encourage our young women, who have everything to gain and only the prospects of obesity, teen pregnancy and academic failure to lose.
— Cheryl D. Fields is the BI editor-at-large.
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