What is a White Sport?

Black athletes in white dominated sports.

From high school athletes to professional players, sports have had a significant impact on American culture for centuries. Like many aspects of American life, race has played a significant part in the development of sports. During the civil rights era, when schools were still segregated, Black schools fought for the right to proper sports equipment and Black athletes were still fighting for equal treatment on pro teams. Decades later, things are much different, though diversity is lacking in some areas. Access to certain sports has made it difficult for people of color (POC), and especially low-income families to participate, which is why white-dominated sports have come to exist. 

There are also contributing reasons as to why one race may dominate a sport, such as the matter of representation. Well-known Black athletes like Tiger Woods, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams have all dominated in their careers.They helped challenge the idea that sports are reserved for only one race. So what is a white sport exactly, and what does it mean to be Black in one? 

In 1947, when Jackie Robinson first joined Major League Baseball, he was the first black man to play within the majors since 1884. Robinson faced discrimination from fans and other white players, who said they would rather sit out than play alongside him. Over time, the racial demographics of MLB have changed, now with white players accounting for 57%, Hispanic 32% and Black players around 8%. 

Garfield baseball player Malachi Washington first got into baseball after his parents signed him up for T-ball. “I do feel that there are sports where when POC participate they are looked at in a different light,” Washington said. “I would say that representation does matter to an extent. An inspirational person to me would be Ken Griffey Jr. as it was really cool to see someone from my background. At the same time I’ve also been inspired by other players regardless of background.” 

O’Dea baseball player Asa Reese started playing in third grade when his mom signed him up and he fell in love with the game. “I think it [‘white sports’] used to be a really big idea back in the 60’s, 70’s and even up until the late 90’s. We’re starting to see a lot more diversity nowadays, especially in more popular sports like football, baseball, and basketball. I still think some people still refer to some sports as ‘white sports’ but it’s definitely not as prominent as it used to be,”  Reese said. 

Serena and Venus Williams were coached from a young age by their father Richard Williams and both went on to win multiple tennis awards and Grand Slam titles. Being among the few successful African Americans in their sport from the very beginning, they had to work extra to prove their spots on the court. Garfield varsity tennis player Lakelle Bridges has been playing since she was little and joined the tennis team freshman year. “Seeing Black tennis players like Serena Williams made me want to keep playing tennis, and Coco Gauff is an inspiration for young black girls [in the sport],” Bridges said. 

In tennis, white players account for over 80% and black players account for just under 7%. “[The concept of white sports] does exist, but there are exceptions,” Bridges said. “Tennis is very evident. It takes rackets and equipment which could be out of the price range for lower-income families. [Tennis can be defined as] almost a rich, white sport.” 

Good rackets can cost up to $250 and paired with the cost of shoes, balls and other tennis equipment, playing the sport is usually very expensive. Garfield tennis coach Eric Webster grew up playing a variety of sports in his neighborhood and hustled doing odd jobs and a paper route to support his tennis game. “An advantage that white kids more so than POC had [was that] their parents could afford lessons for them. We learned by the seat of our pants. We taught each other how to play,” Webster said.    

Expenses weren’t the only negative thing Webster experienced playing tennis. “When we started entering white tournaments, we were discriminated against. Our names were never in the draw. Tournament directors would tell us our entry forms were never in the draw, but always collected our entry fees.” Webster said. Despite signing up and paying to play in these tournaments, Black players were often turned away without explanation. “One time we drove 900 miles to a tournament and all five Black guys ended up playing each other in the openingrounds.They call that stacking the draw… Why am I playing my doubles partner? White doubles teams would split up and be on opposite ends of the tournament so they would all excel. I played three Black people in a row out of 64 players, now is that a coincidence?” 

Over the decades, the relationship between sports and race have changed drastically. Despite racial domination within competitive fields, a sport cannot simply belong to a race. While it is encouraging for younger generations to be able to see themselves represented by top athletes, it is also important to note the very real racial struggles they went through to get there.  Many of these professional athletes, especially of older generations, have stories about the discrimination they have faced in paving the way for future generations.