Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

A white youth coach speaks on race, money and sports, and hopes he doesn't step in it

with 8 comments

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.

n1152725890_39676_54501Me, 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.


Written by rkcookjr

August 4, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Posted in parenting, Sports

Tagged with , , ,

8 Responses

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  1. I’m familiar with your ‘hood. I used to consult wireless firm based in Justice, IL, run by a bunch of smart young guys whose parents emigrated from Palestine.

    I’m curious about your daughter Grace’s softball league. In our town, the dads perform most of the coaching and management duties for the girl’s softball league. Does that mirror what happens in Oak Lawn?

    Remember that the “Latino” players are virtually all immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America, where baseball serves almost as their only social service/employment program. BTW, most of these players, if born in the U.S., would be considered “black.” There are many whites who live in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. How come they’re not coming to the States to play ball?

    Also, I’m aware that baseball folks understand that interest does not seem to be very strong amongst second and third-generation Latinos, who’ve grown up in the U.S. The vast majority of Latinos playing major league ball are not like A-Rod, where they’ve grown up in Washington Heights and Miami (or, my first cousin former Pirate/Marlin/Met, Bobby Bonilla, proudly from the Bronx). Puerto Rican and Dominican teens in the NYC area are showing the same “urban” disinterest in the game, too.

    I have more thoughts on your “white sports/black sports” point, which is very interesting. You’ve inspired me to post about it. Enjoying the discussion.

    Bill Stephney

    August 5, 2009 at 10:48 am

  2. Bill, it’s mostly the dads handling girls’ softball, too. A few moms help out (and one did with my son’s T-ball team), but it’s mostly the dads who step up. I tried to get one mom who had played softball in school to help one year, but she sent her husband instead. There are a lot of arguments about whether women are discouraged from coaching, but the one given to me by the women I know is, “I don’t have time to do everything I have to do already.” And they’re right.

    You make a good point, too, about second- and third-generation Latinos. As for race in the Caribbean, while the players would be considered black here (and at one time, Major League Baseball considered them that way), I don’t know enough about race and poverty in the area to know why certain people go for baseball and some don’t. Certainly, baseball there seems to serve the same function as basketball in the United States — the sport seen as the most likely way to go from deprivation to wealth. Of course, in those sports in those areas you can be a poor kid and move ahead. For so many other sports, the structure isn’t there to take care of the staggering investment you’re required to make. I remember reading somewhere that the parents of Chicago Blackhawk Patrick Kane spent $250,000 on his youth hockey career. That paid off, but how many others can risk it not?

    Bob Cook

    August 5, 2009 at 11:38 am

  3. One more thing. It used to be that the kids and families who saw no other way out would concentrate on, say, sports as an alternative. Now you have an environment where parents who wouldn’t have put importance on that otherwise — i.e., white suburban parents — putting big money into it either as a means to a scholarship, or something to burnish the application to an Ivy League school. I mean, there have always been jerk parents who took sports and competition too seriously, but one difference between my generation (I’m 39) and my kids’ is the level of economic investment put into youth sports, who is willing to make that investment, and why.

    Bob Cook

    August 5, 2009 at 11:48 am

  4. I’m enjoying this exchange among men, but my world as a single mother was a LOT different from the one you both seem to live in. When my son was a child, I worked around the clock — during one two-year period I was up at 5 am delivering 100+ newspapers, then went to a full time job, then on weekends another part-time job … And a large part of being a mother under those conditions is getting proper child care. My kids may have wanted to do more, but lack of time, funds, and satisfactory transportation strategies kept them pretty much confined to what I could arrange for them. BTW, my goal at that time was not to position them for a high-powered, high-paying career in sports or anything else as adults, but simply to stay alive in decent shelter with nutritious food … BUT I see now (from this great distance) that I understood and loved ballet, so I did manage to arrange for my daughter to get a few lessons; and my brother loved karate, which I also found fascinating, so I did manage to arrange for my son to get a few lessons … Perhaps, then, a father, who loved baseball could very well have been the missing element for my son, who is all grown with a family of his own, some of whom he takes as often as he can to see BASEBALL!

    So, my question to Bob Cook is: If baseball is a “race” thing, then along with a shortage of black players, there also should be a shortage of black fans — right? Well, is there? If not, then I think Bill won this hand.


    August 5, 2009 at 12:57 pm

  5. Do you think that the parents who spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for youth hockey, do so because they think they’re grooming the next Gretzky or Brodeur? Or does this parental generation do so because of its penchant for “kid overindulgence”?

    For the suburban parents who (prior to the economic downturn) have giving their kids: luxury sleep-away summer camping, petting-zoo birthday parties in the backyard, ski and snowboarding weekends,etc. — I tend to think that those parents dive into “go for it” mode for anything that relates to their kids.

    One thing I am pretty sure about when it comes to most kids now growing in cities and urban areas: “parental overindulgence” is way off their radar. Unfortunately.

    Bill Stephney

    August 5, 2009 at 1:55 pm

  6. Bob, you not “stepping in it” — you’re “stepping to it.”

    See, I think that the baseball/softball “race participation gap” (in sociologist “wonk-speak”…) allows us to more informally (and effectively…) discuss issues of disparity, than if we were at some urban issues think-tank.

    When I see a bunch of dedicated and loving white dads, coaching Sunday softball for their daughters in our NJ suburban town — then, as an African-American father of a beautiful daughter, I reflect on how impossible it would be to even CONSIDER seeing the same thing happen for daughters in the predominantly black area of Brooklyn that we moved from.

    The white suburb that I live in today, bears more of a family structural resemblance to the black neighborhood that I grew up in, than the black part of Brooklyn that we moved away from (my kids were the only ones with a father at the local park…I had to push eight “requesting” kids at a time, on the swings…).

    For the 40 past years, fathers, marriage and cohesive family life have been advertised pretty much as a “white, middle-class thing.” The “struggling, but heroic, single-black-mom-with-her-kids” became the accepted and promoted urban norm.

    It seems that baseball is just one of the many casualties that came out of encouraging inner-city child creation without a father in the home.

    Bill Stephney

    August 5, 2009 at 2:20 pm

  7. The identified problem of the “unmarried birth-rate and absent fathers” as one of the reasons that African Americans are not participating, in some sports, suggests that there may be a greater need for coaches and other mentors to go into those areas in which the missing fathers are unwilling or unable to be present in their children’s lives. A coach, life coach really, could help children of the inner city by showing them ways that help them to develop their self-esteem sufficiently to avoid the lure and consequences of drugs and sexual promiscuity that, unfortunately, are so prevalent in many poverty-ridden areas of our nation. I wonder why it would be so “impossible to even consider seeing dedicated. . .dads coaching their daughters in the inner city,” as one contributor comments. It is not impossible but it would mean a great deal of hard work, maybe even a tag team approach where men and women rotate in and out of the poor neighborhoods, continuously, to work with children there. People in this country go to Africa to help the impoverished and those in despair – why not do that right here in the blighted areas of America where too much of life is fear, drugs, poverty and precarious sex?


    August 6, 2009 at 1:07 pm

  8. Won this hand? At the risk of speaking for Bill, if I’ve read our conversation correctly, we’re not battling here. The fact remains that African-American representation in Major League Baseball has plummeted, and that the lack of interest and/or opportunity in playing (or watching) starts early on.

    As far as your situation, you got your kids involved in the activities you felt were important, and that they responded to. No doubt that my kids’ initial participation in basketball has a lot to do with them watching their old man spending a lot of his time shooting in the driveway and playing rec leagues. Anyway, it’s not 100 percent that a lack of a father around will result in no baseball interest — my aunt, for example, was widowed at a young age and brought her son out every day to play catch because she’s such a fanatic about the sport. Or that a child will automatically choose the interest of his or her parent.

    I’m glad for your input, because it’s necessary to answer these questions about race and baseball: Why are fewer blacks participating? And why does that matter? As always, the answers have a lot more to do with things other than baseball.

    Bob Cook

    August 6, 2009 at 1:52 pm

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