News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

More than the ball is white
Not many blacks in college baseball

By Kyle Veazey
DAILY Sports Writer 340-2460

When Kenneth and Cheryl Brown visit Southeastern Conference baseball parks to watch their son, Kenneth, pitch for Alabama, they can't help but notice.

Left-handed pitcher Kenneth Brown Jr. is the only African-American player in the Alabama baseball team picture. Auburn has three in its team picture.
DAILY Photo Illustration by Dan Henry
Left-handed pitcher Kenneth Brown Jr. is the only African-American player in the Alabama baseball team picture. Auburn has three in its team picture.
"Since my son has been playing at Alabama, he was either the only African-American on the entire field, or one of two," Kenneth Brown Sr. said.

The crowd, it's almost all white. The teams, they're almost all white. College baseball, as a whole, is finding more and more success with fans across the country, but finding no more success with blacks, both on the field and off.

Consider these numbers:

  • Of the hundreds of players on Southeastern Conference rosters this season, 16 were black.
  • NCAA statistics report that 6.1 percent of college baseball players at Division I schools were black in 2003, the last period for which data were available. Cross-country, soccer and wrestling had a higher percentage. Fencing had an identical number.
  • Out of the 62 baseball programs sponsored by the six major conferences, none have a black head coach.
  • This year's national championship team, Texas, had no black players. The runner-up, Florida, had two.

    All the while, attendance numbers are up, television exposure is rising and the pressure to win is growing.

    "I don't think it's racism," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for Sport in Society and an expert in race issues in sports. "I think a part of it is exposure and the opportunity."

    The College World Series set overall attendance records eight times in the 1990s, and the numbers have climbed this decade, topping out at a record 263,475 fans for this year's event.

    ESPN has televised most of the CWS every year since 1980 and every game of the tournament since 2003. This year, the network broadcast regular-season games for the first time since 1990, with a schedule of 58 games scattered on its various networks.

    Auburn coach Tom Slater and Alabama coach Jim Wells spend much of their lives on the road this time of year, scouting talent at summer camps and tournaments. Rarely, they say, do they come across a talented young black player.

    "I would say percentage-wise, I think you don't see as many African-Americans at the tournaments and different things," Slater said. "I don't think you see as many percentage-wise as whites. I think that's accurate. There's not that many African-American kids in the tournaments and in the travel teams."

    Wells, visiting a tournament in Marietta, Ga., two weeks ago, agreed.

    "I just came from a game and there was not a black kid out there, now that I think of it," he said.

    Inner-city dropoff

    Such a drain is expressed all across college baseball these days, and has been for years. Accusations of racism are rarely made, but the reasons are still varied.

    More often than not, it's that baseball just isn't played in the inner city, for whatever reason.

    "Athletes are watching their role models and seeing what kind of attention the sport gets in their own community," Roby said. "You don't have Saturday afternoon baseball games coming on the air all the time and kids could be influenced by it. But every Sunday afternoon you have NFL games on."

    Roby pointed to a study his school did in Boston. Thirty percent of inner-city youths participated in organized youth sports, compared to 70 percent in the suburbs.

    The younger Brown, a junior left-handed pitcher who saw sparse action for Alabama this season after he transferred from Chiploa (Fla.) Junior College, revealed another reality of baseball.

    "You think the lifestyle of the NBA and football players comes an awful lot easier," said Brown, who is pitching this summer for the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs of the Florida Collegiate Summer League.

    "(In those), you can get drafted right away and make it to the pro level, whereas in baseball you could get drafted and not even make it, or spend forever in the minor leagues."

    Even in the historically black Southwestern Athletic Conference, finding top talent is a chore. Its teams — with the notable exception of Southern University, and its notable alum, Rickie Weeks, who hit a three-run homer a week ago to lead the Milwaukee Brewers to a win — usually aren't a factor on the national scene.

    "Right now, we're hanging in there," SWAC commissioner Robert Vowels said. "SWAC baseball is alive and well. I wouldn't say it's thriving."

    Vowels attributed much of his conference's lack of success to a regional talent shortage. Southern and its coach, Roger Cador, has seen success, Vowels said, because "he's been able to develop a program where the African-American youth come to him."

    One historically black university, North Carolina A&T, has comprised much of its roster with white players. The head coach, too, is white, and A&T won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title this season.

    "I guess most of our recruiting has been done in North Carolina, and as I go across the state, blacks are just not playing," A&T coach Keith Shumate told the Associated Press. "It's made baseball look like some type of country club sport, which it should not be."

    But it is, and that's coming from one of the sport's most prominent figures — former LSU head coach and current athletics director Skip Bertman.

    "Baseball is like the other sports — it's a country club sport," said Bertman, who led LSU to five national titles. "It's predominantly white. It's played by upper middle class white kids in the summers. There are almost no black youth baseball groups going on in the summer."

    Scholarship shortage

    There's a greater problem in college baseball as it fights to become one of the big-time sports on the national landscape. The NCAA says a school can offer no more than 11.7 scholarships to baseball players, meaning that a little more than 25 percent of a 40-man roster can be paid for. (Football has 85 scholarships, for instance.)

    Black or white, it's hard to attract the top players that way.

    "It's got to be changed at the highest levels," Auburn coach Tom Slater said. "We've got so few scholarships to give out. That's got something to do with it."

    The scholarship shortage tends to hit college baseball harder on the side of diversity. The athlete from the poor family who wants baseball to pay for college is, more often than not, out of luck. Full scholarships are rare in college baseball, with most players getting only a percentage of their tuition bill paid for.

    Bertman said of the 800 or so high school players taken every year in the MLB draft, about 200 are black. That 25 percent figure is far greater than the 6.1 percent who play college baseball.

    "The blacks that do appear in college baseball usually have football scholarships, and they're not part of that 11.7," Bertman said.

    Wells agreed with Slater, saying the NCAA-imposed limits hurt college baseball — and not only with minorities.

    "It plays a part with all folks," Wells said. "We're so limited, most of it, with scholarships, especially the schools in our state that don't have any lottery tuition waivers, because no one gets a big scholarship to speak of."

    Some states, like Georgia and Tennessee, have an advantage over states without lotteries in that they can supplement an in-state player's scholarship with a lottery-funded tuition waiver.

    Bertman:No change soon

    Bertman doesn't expect a shift toward diversity in college baseball anytime soon.

    "It never had a lot of blacks, and it never will," Bertman said. "It's not because blacks aren't good baseball players. Obviously most athletes, though, prefer football or basketball."

    Blacks hold 58.2 percent of the NCAA Division I basketball roster spots and make up 44.3 percent of Division I-A football rosters.

    Numbers of black baseball players in the NCAA have remained steady over the last five years. The number topped out at 6.9 percent in 2001-02, but fell to 6.1 percent in 2002-03 and 2003-04. By contrast, the percentage of blacks playing all sports at the Division I level grew slightly, from 22.9 to 24.6 percent, over a five-year period.

    More troubling to Roby is the dismal percentage of black head coaches in college baseball, where none of the major conference coaches is black.

    "(It's) because so many of the people making the ultimate decision to hire are white males," he said. "We know from history that people are more likely to hire folks that are more representative of their own background."

    According to the latest NCAA report, three percent of athletics directors at non-historically black colleges and universities are black. In the same sample, there are five blacks serving as head baseball coaches in 730 baseball-playing schools in all three NCAA divisions. Eight out of 514 football coaches were black.

    By contrast, 12 percent of men's basketball coaches were black.

    The game's growth in the stands, though, has happened almost exclusively with white fans, though Ron Hughston, president of the Alabama baseball booster club, says that's the general rule at all major college sporting events.

    "I see very few (black fans) at baseball games," Hughston said. "I see very few at the basketball games, and 90 percent of the players on the court are black. I see very few at the football games."

    Hughston's club, the Alabama Grand Slammers, has 250 members. None are black, but that's not by design.

    "If they've got the money and they want to put in the time to work, we'd be glad to have anyone as a member," he said.

    Bertman compared the racial makeup of most teams to the amount of season ticket holders for major league clubs — 1 to 2 percent.

    The lack of blacks represented in college baseball isn't a new question for either Wells or Bertman. Both have spent time at college baseball's biggest stage, the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where the question tends to be brought up almost every year.

    "I remember being asked when we were at the 1996 World Series," Wells said. "A little bit in '97."

    Said Bertman: "Every year since I've been coaching, 45 years, right about after the College World Series, this story comes out. ... This is about my fourth (interview) this year."

    But it is a topic of discussion at the Brown household in Lafayette, La.

    "Often times when I get with fellow African-American fathers, there's often a dialogue concerning that black wall, that African-Americans only go so far in baseball and that it's a white man's sport," Kenneth Brown Sr. said. "That feeling is pervasive among African-American fathers whose sons play baseball.

    "It becomes a challenge for us to keep our kids motivated," he said.

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