The Incredibly White College World Series

Does the lack of diversity in college baseball explain why the number of black Americans playing in the Big Leagues continues its precipitous decline?

Getty Images

Every June I find myself watching the College World Series, but never for long. Collegiate baseball isn't something I follow in the regular season, mostly because it's rarely televised before tournament time.

I almost never pay attention to the score. For me, the CWS is more of a TV spectacle out of which I make my own sort of game. I call it "Count All the Caucasians." It's a game that at first is amusing, then highly discouraging; it is also short. Whether the cameras of ESPN2 are following the play-by-play, zooming into the dugouts or just panning the crowd, within a few minutes my tally overwhelms me. I lose count and change the channel in search of something with a less embarrassing lack of racial diversity—a rerun of The Brady Bunch, for example.

This exercise says more about the state of the national pastime than it does about my limited counting abilities. There is a growing sense—expressed recently on The Root by Martin Johnson—that the black American ballplayer is a vanishing breed. And there is statistical support for these worries. On Jackie Robinson Day in April, Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) reported that the level of African Americans playing major league baseball in 2007 had fallen to 8.2 percent—less than half of the 17 percent TIDES had found a mere 10 seasons earlier.

Many people were shocked that the numbers had plummeted so dramatically. But as someone who's watched the College World Series for the last decade, my question was: How on earth is that figure still so high? MLB's 8.2 percent sounds downright utopian when measured against the equivalent rates in the college game, which remains a central pipeline of talent for big league farm systems.

Flip on your TV any time between now and June 25 to watch a College World Series game, and you'll see what I mean. NCAA baseball has a race problem that dwarfs anything in the major leagues. It would be a much bigger deal if more people actually watched the college game's premiere TV event, but then again, I'm not sure more people should be watching the CWS. It's hard to support what amounts to an insulated, whitewashed platform where economic factors play just as large a role as athletic skill in shaping rosters.

According to the NCAA's Student-Athlete Race and Ethnicity Report, black, non-Hispanic players accounted for 5.7 percent of Division I baseball rosters in 2005-2006 (the last year data was available). However, the number is skewed by the inclusion of programs at historically black colleges and universities, and statistics excluding HBCUs are unavailable. At the most competitive schools, where rosters usually exceed 30 ballplayers, the color spectrum shrinks. Baseball America's Preseason Top 25, for instance, features no HBCUs, and 18 of its squads fall short of 5.7 percent inclusion. Only two of the teams boast more than two U.S.-born black, non-Hispanic student athletes. And at least 12 teams have one or fewer.

The situation became even more conspicuous, once the field was set for the 2008 CWS. Consider that three of the eight World Series rosters are without any black representation—Fresno State, Georgia and the recently eliminated Florida State. Only one of the tournament's teams—LSU—boasts more than three African Americans.

By comparison, ESPN's College World Series broadcasting team—six white men, a white woman and Barry Larkin—looks absurdly integrated.

How did we get to this point? The standard argument is that diversity in the college game suffers because of baseball's dwindling popularity among young African Americans. But this gives an incomplete picture. A lower percentage of African Americans participate in college baseball than cross-country, fencing, soccer, volleyball and wrestling. These sports don't exactly compete with basketball or football for dominance in black neighborhoods. They don't exactly match baseball's level of black participation on the professional stage, either.

As always, money plays an important role. NCAA baseball belongs to the class of "partial scholarship sports" that traditionally struggle for black recruits. A Division I baseball team is currently limited to 11.7 scholarships, which must be divvied up like morsels among the entire roster. Players are expected to cover the rest. Since several of the so-called elite programs are at private universities (like Rice, Miami and Stanford in this year's CWS) and many of the best public school programs recruit heavily out of state, this translates to a huge tuition bill that's hard for anybody but the most well-heeled to pay, whatever color they are.