Monday, June 11, 2007

Racial Diversity's Major League Benefits

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, an event now widely accepted as having profoundly changed not only the face of baseball and professional sports in America, but the course of the civil rights movement as well. Before the military or the nation's public schools were forcibly desegregated by law, the Dodgers' voluntary signing of Robinson signaled that black players were as skilled and valuable as white players, but more importantly, that the national pastime could no longer function divided with players by race into different leagues. Robinson proved his worth immediately with a stellar season, hitting .297, playing more games and scoring more runs than any other Dodger, stealing more bases than any other player in the National League, and being named Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News. His performance ushered in a wave of other black players on other teams the following season, with the effects of baseball's integration spreading to the National Football League, which began recruiting African-American players by the late 1940's, and the National Basketball Association, which recruited African-American basketball players from college from the days of its inception in 1949.

Robinson's success affected far more than the fates of other black athletes, however. During his first season, the Dodgers played to sold-out stadiums where ever they traveled, with Chicago's Wrigley Field packing in 47,000 fans -- 10,000 more than maximum capacity -- when the Dodgers came to visit. By the end of the season, Robinson had helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to the National League pennant and helped the Dodgers set a new attendance record, drawing over 1.8 million fans—the highest single-season attendance in history atEbbets Field. Robinson’s presence and popularity also drove the total attendance for the National League above ten million fans—the highest single-season total to that date. Robinson’s success on the field and at the turnstiles demonstrated beyond any doubt to millions of Americans that African-American players were capable of competing with and working in harmony with the Caucasian players in the Major Leagues.

That the integration of baseball had such an overwhelmingly positive effect not only on black players, but on the popularity and level of competition of the sport as well was much of the reason that the Dodgers voluntary inclusion of Robinson was so monumental. Baseball was the most universally embraced sport in America at the time, and Robinson's highly visible presence was a powerful catalyst in the larger battle for equal opportunity and civil rights. At the same time, athletes on the newly integrated teams and their fans were getting the chance to interact with people of a different race, and finding the experience to be illuminating. As African-American player Ed Charles noted, "It gave us a chance to know each other better. Once you get to know someone, you’re not going to feel as threatened...Any forum that brings people together can lift the cloud of ignorance from all of us." It also brought millions of Americans of different racial backgrounds together across National League cities, in person and in spirit, to root for the same team of players and to learn that they could co-exist with fellow citizens across the color line.

Local communities such as Louisville and Seattle are hoping to harness this same potential in their voluntary integration plans. Children who go to school with one another may share the joys and challenges of growing up, learning, working and playing to an even greater degree than teammates on the field. Additionally, integrated schools bring about integrated sports teams. Like their professional counterparts, student-athletes in integrated settings tend to display a higher level of academic, professional, and athletic success, as well as showing greater levels of teamwork, racial tolerance, and achievement both on and off the field.

Reflecting on the unique power of sports to foster tolerance and multiculturalism, the NCAA states that "Numerous studies have found that sports provide key social contexts for students of different backgrounds to interact “(1) as equals, (2) in a cooperative way, and (3) with shared goals." Of course, integrated elementary, middle, and high schools as a whole provide very similar opportunities for children, as illustrated by the following quote from social scientist T.F.Pettigrew, and cited by the NCAA: "The athletic arena is a domain that requires positive group-based interactions in order for team members to experience success, and in fact is one of the few realms in which all of the essential conditions for reducing prejudice are met. Specifically, the contact occurs between individuals with equalized status in the situation, the contact entails purposeful activity toward common goals fostering interdependence, the contact is cooperative, and the contact is socially sanctioned." The athletic arena is certainly a realm in which all of these conditions are met, but I can think of another.

For more information on the importance of racial integration in sports, check out the NCAA amicus brief at


austin47122 said...

May I use you article for a high school class? I'm having students read articles about the recent Supreme Court decision and watch the movie Remember the Titans. Your article will be the perfect bridge between current events and a quality film that shows the history in an entertaining way. Students will discuss and write a post about the issues.

Nicole Dixon said...

This post can certainly be used for your class. It sounds like a very interesting project -- good luck! If you have any further questions, please contact Thanks!

Perde said...

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