A white youth coach speaks on race, money and sports, and hopes he doesn't step in it
Fellow True/Slant writer Bill Stephney and I were having a nice back-and-forth following my recent post about the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, a rare example of young, African-American baseball success (or even young, African-Americans merely playing baseball). He asked me a question I figured I would address in a post rather than a comment, just so it could be better highlighted.
What I’m also interested in is your own sports dad/sports journalist story in the ‘burbs. Are you also a Little League coach? If so, what makes the youth baseball program that kids in the suburbs experience successful, versus the hurdles now faced by kids in urban areas?
For full disclosure, I am now both a lacrosse dad (for a teen son…), and Little League traveling, all-star team dad (for a 10 year-old son…) — and we live in a predominantly-White, New Jersey suburb. I find the contrasts between suburban/urban environments just on this issue, incredibly fascinating.
To take the questions in order:
Are you a Little League coach?
I have coached various teams since my 12-year-old son, Bobby/Robert (depending on what he wants to be called that day) started playing basketball in second grade. (He’s going into seventh grade now.) I’ve coached him multiple times in basketball, including last year, when I assisted my brother-in-law on a seventh- and eighth-grade coed team my son was placed on when sixth-graders were drafted to fill out the rosters. I coached my 10-year-old daughter, Grace, in softball her first year, managed her team her second, managed her fall ball team following that, and then got out of the way when she moved up and beyond my realm of softball understanding. Instead, this year I switched to managing my 6-year-old son Ryan’s T-ball team. My kids have played other sports, but I’ve stayed out of coaching them because I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, at least not as much as the coaches who were there.
Me, coaching with Serious Coach Face.
If so, what makes the youth baseball program that kids in the suburbs experience successful, versus the hurdles now faced by kids in urban areas?
It might not be as simple as breaking it down city and suburbs, just because it can depend on the neighborhood or the suburb. I coach in Oak Lawn and Alsip, Ill., which are inner-ring suburbs of Chicago (you might have heard of Alsip because of the ghastly doings at Burr Oak Cemetery). The dominant culture is white Catholic working class, rather than the wealthier realm of the outer or more chichi burbs. The area has its professionals and middle managers, but you’re going to find a lot of union affiliation. The area also has a growing Arabic and Latino population, and a small African-American population. Another oddity (to me) of the area: it’s still a entry point for immigrants, so it’s not unusual to find people who were born in Ireland, Greece, Poland, Palestine, Jordan or Lithuania. But because people here tend to be from here (like my wife), someone from Indiana, only 15 miles away, or even the northern suburbs is more of a foreigner.
Anyway, it would be easy to say money is a big difference-maker, and it is. But it’s also about the local sporting culture and traditions. There’s a strong Catholic tradition of sport as a way to stay healthy and Godly (like the vast programs at Notre Dame), so a kid who isn’t playing sports is a rarity. There’s also a strong Catholic tradition of not divorcing, so that tends to keep a lot of fathers around to participate in coaching and encouraging their kids in sport (though many mothers, do, too).
Bill Stephney, in his comments to me and elsewhere, makes a strong case that a big factor in declining African-American representation in major-league baseball is the unmarried birth rate in black communities rising above 50 percent in the mid-1980s, thus taking away a father’s influence especially necessary in baseball. While C.C. Sabathia and Dontrelle Willis came from broken homes, their dads were around for at least a short time. Jermaine Dye (Giants fan) and Jimmy Rollins (Athletics fan) grew up regularly going to games with their fathers on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay. Ryan Howard’s father is a successful IBM executive who has kept a rock-solid home, and who can sell commitment by talking about the time he was in the same Birmingham jail in 1963 for the same reason as Martin Luther King Jr. when King wrote “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” Plus, you have major-leaguers’ kids — Ken Griffey Jr., Jerry Hairston Jr., Gary Matthews Jr. These days you don’t see, in baseball, some of the tough and harrowing stories of African-Americans growing up that you do in the NBA or NFL.
However, I wonder, though, if over time there hasn’t been a shift, subtle or not-so-subtle, to the idea of “white” sports and “black” sports. After all, it’s not all about fatherhood or growing up with a few bucks in your pocket, or else you wouldn’t see as many Latino players in baseball. Yes, major-league teams spend a lot of money to scout and develop talent in the Caribbean, but the culture itself draws kids toward baseball.
Take a look at the public high school that serves me, Richards, better known as Dwyane Wade’s alma mater. Looking at the lily-white baseball team, you’d never know the school was 30 percent African-American. Looking at the basketball team, you’d never know the school was 70 percent white. I can see parents already calculating where their kids’ best shot is for success, and I know there are white parents who believe (though they might not say it) that they don’t think their kids will make it basketball once they start having to compete with black players. I should note that my high school draws from more white areas like mine, and a few inner-ring suburbs that are mostly African-American and poor, like Robbins, which produced Wade.
Look at a case like the Detroit Tigers’, Curtis Granderson, another south Chicago suburbanite. He came from a two-parent household, including a father who coached his Little League teams. But even Granderson himself was thinking basketball for most of his youth, and he went to Illinois-Chicago on the promise he could walk on that team while he still played baseball. Did Granderson, and do other African-American kids, internalize the idea of baseball being a white sport? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. (Speaking for all of white people, I know there are some who have interalizing basketball as a black sport. But as I mentioned, I’m from Indiana, so I’ve internalized it as a Hoosier sport.) That’s something I’ll ask Bill Haley at Jackie Robinson West about.
By the way two other things on race and sport in my little neck of the woods:
— People tend to think of bowling as a white sport, like the TBS people who have filled my local lane with ads for the redneck “Bill Engvall Show.” But when I’m there for my 6-year-old son Ryan’s leagues, an overwhelming number of youth bowlers are black. If there’s a sport that’s eventually going to have a change in racial hue in the next 20 years, it’ll be pro bowling.
— There’s a beauty and scariness in watching young children on a team address race and ethnicity. In one of my earlier T-ball practices, I heard Ryan speaking loudly about it with three kids. “No, no!” he yelled. “Trevor isn’t Arabic. His dad is black and his mom is white.” Given the usual racial sensitivies of the Chicago area, I rushed over to make sure there was nothing untoward going on, and that I wasn’t going to become the Racist Manager with the Racist Son. But Ryan explained what that was all about. It seemed two Arabic teammates (whom Ryan knew from school) were thinking that Trevor, because of his similar skin hue, must be Arabic as well, and Ryan just wanted to get everybody’s facts straight. Yes, we all can get along.