There was this great song in the 90s “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” that I am reminded of now as I ponder why the percentage of African Americans in MLB has decreased steadily over the past 15 years. It’s certainly a phenomenon I’ve heard the last few years as a Braves fan. Until now, however, I never took the time to ask why. I’ve heard people say it’s because African American young men would rather play football. Perhaps, but why? I don’t think it’s simply because they prefer football, after all baseball is the national pastime. Doesn’t every little boy want to grow up to be a professional baseball player one day?
Maybe it has something to do with the declining ability of African American young men to play college baseball. One of the best things that came out of 2009 for me was the opportunity to become a part of a terrific organization here in Atlanta called L.E.A.D. (which stands for Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct). L.E.A.D. is America’s first instructional league for inner-city teens. L.E.A.D.’s goal is to expose inner-city teens to competitive baseball, while also providing them with a strong sense of community involvement. I could do a whole post on how phenomenal this group has been and how much I’ve enjoyed my experience with them, but back to the topic at hand…
The young men who are a part of L.E.A.D. have the end goal of using their baseball talent to gain collegiate scholarships in order to pursue greater educational opportunities. Except scholarship opportunities in baseball are becoming more difficult to obtain. The NCAA limits the number of full scholarships in baseball to 11.7, however, the typical team roster is between 25-45 players. In 2008, new rules were adopted that limited the number of players on aid to 30 for the 2008-2009 season and 27 for the 2009-2010 season. Scholarships used to be split into amounts that allowed most, if not all, of the roster players to receive some sort of financial aid. Unfortuantely, there was some abuse that caused the new rules had to be implemented. Coaches were giving out “tryout scholarships” which lured the player to campus with a small scholarship. The amount was small enough that the coach could cut the player during fall practices without if effecting his bottom line.
Sometimes rules aimed at one problem make way for a new kind of problem. Under the new rules, only 27 players can be on scholarship and each scholarship must be for at least 25% of the tuition, room and board. Compare that to football where 85 full scholarships are available for about 87 roster spots (active and inactive), or basketball where 13 full scholarships are available for 12-15 roster spots. Which sport would you choose to play if you were a young African American athlete who could only get a college education through an athletic scholarship?
Consider this, the champions of the 2009 College World Series, the LSU Tigers, had two African American players, neither of whom were on baseball scholarships. Instead, Chad Jones and Jared Mitchell were both on football scholarships. Thanks to a friend of mine who pointed that out, as I think it uniquely illustrates the point.
All of this causes a ripple effect. More African American teens either choose the football scholarship, or they choose to enter the MLB draft directly out of high school. If the kid has to play on a football scholarship in order to play baseball in college, he’s increasing his risk of injury and may also ultimately decide that he should go pro in the NFL. Going directly into the MLB draft from high school though causes a whole new set of issues. Not only is the teen who goes directly to the minor leagues missing out on higher education, but he has to prove immediately that he can progress through the minor leagues or he is likely to get lost in the shuffle.
The final result of all of this is a decline in African American players at the Major League level. In 2007, MLB reached its lowest level for African American players since the 80s at only 8.2% (although this number grew to 10.2 in 2008). The total population of players of color in MLB is 39.6%, with Latinos comprising 27% and Asians 2.4%. There were only 4 African American managers in MLB in 2008. There were only 3 African American General Managers at the start of the 2009 season. No African Americans own a MLB club. There are also no African American CEO or Team Presidents. You can see the chart below to compare this with the NFL and NBA.
|MLB (30 teams/25 man roster)
|NFL (32 teams/53 man roster)
|NBA(30 teams/15 man roster)
I won’t pretend that I know the answer to the problem. I don’t. I do, however, recognize that something is happening here. The number of African American baseball players has been declining for fifteen years, with 2008 being the first time since 1998 that MLB saw any increase in the percentage of African Americans playing the game. Don’t get me wrong, MLB is doing a fairly good job diversifying if you count all players of color. But I’m left to wonder why the number of African American players continues to decrease while the percentage of other players of color consistently increases. The reasons I’ve stated above seem to factor in, but so does the structure of the MLB draft. African American players enter through the draft, while Latino and Asian players generally do not. Clubs are able to scout talent in Latin American and Japan and either scoop up undiscovered talent or outbid their competitors for the best talent in those countries. Thus, we’re seeing a rising number of Latino and Asian players enter the game. All the while, African Americans have been on the decline for the better part of two decades.
As I said before, I have no definitive plan for how to change things moving forward. This is all merely food for thought. I’d love to hear what you all think!
For love of the game,