Collegiate sports, and athletic scholarships in particular, have served as portals to higher education for generations of African-Americans who may have not otherwise attended college. That’s not the case for Latinos.
Hispanic men and women represented just 4.5 and 3.9 percent, respectively, of student-athletes in the NCAA during the 2008-09 academic year. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of Hispanics playing college sports grew at a glacial pace, from 3 to 4.2 percent, even as Hispanic students have become more prevalent on college campuses — 12 percent of students were Hispanic in 2007, according to Census data. Hispanics account for 15.8 percent of the U.S. population. Although lagging in college sports, Latinos are a rising power in professional sports; Latinos dominate boxing, soccer and baseball. Major League Baseball’s Hispanic superstars, such as Chicago White Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, rank among America’s highest-paid professional athletes. In June, the Memphis Grizzlies selected former University of Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, the 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Despite their growing presence in sports, relatively few Latinos play sports in college, even in baseball and soccer where they are overrepresented at the professional level. The college sports with the highest percentage of Hispanic men were volleyball (12.3 percent) and water polo (7.3 percent), reflecting their popularity in California and Florida. For women, they were rugby (15.2 percent) and water polo (7.3 percent).
“Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority group in the country. However, the demographics of our [NCAA] member institutions do not reflect this growth in the student-athlete population,” says Mark Cabrera, a soccer player at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Scholars and sports personnel note specific structural, cultural and educational issues preventing more Latinos from using their athletic talents as a ladder to college.
A major difference between the Black and Hispanic experience in sports is that, under segregation, African-Americans developed independent sports structures that paralleled White organizations. Black colleges fielded basketball, football, baseball and other sports teams. The Negro Leagues often recruited baseball players from HBCUs. Black communities established a deep college pipeline of sports talent ready to seize athletic opportunities.
By contrast, Latinos are overrepresented at community colleges that typically don’t offer a full sports program or athletic scholarships. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 53 percent of Latino undergraduates attend two-year institutions.
In addition, there’s little incentive for Latinos to play collegiate sports if their goal is to play professionally. While college is the recruiting grounds for professional football and basketball — sports that Latinos are just starting to make headway in — it is not a pipeline for professional boxing and soccer, the sports most associated with Hispanics. Major League Baseball maintains a minor league system that doesn’t require college.
Another barrier to Hispanic participation in college sports is that many parents can’t give their children access to organized sports training at a young age.
“Unlike African-Americans, Latinos have not been drilled from birth that sports are a way out of poverty,” says Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
He says that, because of equipment costs or difficulties with their parents providing transportation, relatively few Hispanics play Little League baseball or Pop Warner football. As a result, fewer develop the skills needed to make the middle and high school or club teams that could get them noticed by college coaches.
Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says Black athletes have benefited from White cultural attitudes about sports that don’t apply to Hispanics.
“Since World War I, many people have believed the stereotype that Blacks are genetically superior athletes. Coaches eventually felt they had to recruit them to be competitive. Once this gave Black athletes a psychological edge, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Stewart says. “However, in 2010, if you ask why Latinos dominate some sports, the answer will probably be that they grew up where people love and play these sports from young ages, producing lots of well-trained talent. Once the explanation is enthusiasm and skills, not genetics, you no longer need to recruit specific ethnic groups.”
The growing anti-immigrant backlash may be another factor in making some campuses less hospitable or attractive to Hispanic student-athletes. During his playing career at Maryland, Vasquez, who is Venezuelan, encountered racist signs demanding that he be deported back to Mexico.
Gloria Nevarez, senior associate commissioner at the Pacific-10 Conference, can attest to the less-than-welcoming environment Latino student-athletes face. As a Mexican-American who was recruited to play basketball for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Nevarez had many reservations about accepting her previous position in August 2007 as associate athletic director at the University of Oklahoma.
“There was a welcoming atmosphere within the athletic department, but the larger community was a different question,” she says. “When I got there, there were two major pieces of anti-immigrant legislation pending in the state Legislature. One would have made it a felony to hire anyone who wasn’t a legal resident; the other would have made English the official language of Oklahoma, making it impossible to publish any documents in Spanish.”
Jim Sarra, deputy athletic director at the University of Texas at San Antonio, a Hispanic-serving institution, says boosting the numbers of Latino student-athletes depends on increasing the enrollment of Hispanic students in general. Some barriers to college for Hispanic students — including cultural pressure on young adults to work rather than attend college to support the family — are, by extension, barriers to collegiate play.
Larry Joe Hunt, athletic director for Hispanic-serving Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., says helping to educate parents about the college process and making recruiting materials more accessible to Spanish-speaking parents would help.
“We are in one of the poorest areas in the country,” he says. “Many of the parents can not understand the application process. It would really help to have more recruiting information in Spanish.”
Nevarez agrees more parental education is needed but says having materials in Spanish may not be enough.
“My father spoke good English, and my parents hoped I would get an athletic scholarship,” she says, “but the NCAA recruiting process was still too complicated for us to really understand. I was recruited by Harvard and Yale (universities) but never responded because the Ivy League doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. We didn’t realize they would have given me complete financial aid.”
It’s unclear whether high-profile Hispanic student-athletes like Vasquez will encourage greater collegiate sports participation among Latinos. Comments posted on Maryland student websites indicate that many Hispanic students took pride in the fact that he conducted himself well both on and off the court.
However, University of Maryland professor of urban studies Dr. William John Hanna says there is little evidence that Vasquez’s presence helped Maryland recruit or retain Latino students.
“No one I spoke to ever brought him up or mentioned him directly,” says Hanna, who conducts field research on the nearby Hispanic community of Langley Park.
At the very least, Vasquez sent an important message about the value of staying in school, although he had entered and ultimately withdrew his name from the 2009 NBA Draft after his junior season to return to Maryland for his senior year.
The day he was voted the ACC Player of the Year, Vasquez said, “Mom, she has no clue about basketball. All she cares is just about me getting an education. I looked straight into my mom’s eyes, and she told me, ‘I just want you to graduate. I don’t care about money. … I just want you to get an education and I want you to be a good gentleman.’ I listened to my mom and that was the main reason that I came back.”
Sarra says role models can make a difference, and, as an example, lauds his school’s Dream Runners program as an excellent model for how to actively use athletes to promote higher education. A 5-year-old program started by UTSA’s Office of P-20 Initiatives and the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, Dream Runners works with economically disadvantaged students in the fifth through eighth grades at 30 schools in the San Antonio area. Through activities like “College Student for a Day,” the younger students get exposure to college life, including classes and sporting events, in an effort to motivate them to aspire for a college education.
“We bring elementary school students to the campus to enjoy sports and we specifically introduce them to our athletes,” he says. “It is a chance for them to see people who are just like them, who are successful, who did well in high school and are getting a higher education on scholarship. The most important thing is that it helps them believe that college is within their reach.”