Why Are There So Many Black Athletes?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The statistics don’t lie, but they might surprise you.

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Pardon the pun, but here’s the kicker: Each of the jobs listed above, and the many more tracked in the study, outrank by far the total number of black professional athletes by individual sport.

Take, for example, the NFL. As recently as 2012, there were only 1,804 professional black players in the league. And in the NBA, which, to many, is synonymous with black popular culture, there were only 350 black players in 2012! Although basketball looms large in the black cultural imagination, NBA squads are quite small. 

The most amazing fact of all? Get this: In 2012, there were more black neurologists (411) and black cardiologists (690) by far than all of the black men playing in the NBA (350)!  

Those are the most recent numbers, taken from Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the US 2014, by Derek R. Smart, a publication of the American Medical Association. And the number of black brain surgeons (230) was equal to 60 percent of the number of black men playing in the NBA. That number is rising, too. Soon there will be more black brain surgeons than black basketball players.   

Nevertheless, far too many of our children believe that it is, statistically, easier to make it into the NBA or the NFL than it is to make it into college and go on to professional school.

Now, I grant you, in 2012 African Americans made up 66.3 percent of all pro football players and a whopping 76.3 percent of NBA players, but the larger point is the same. Put everyone in the above survey in a room, and only a tiny fraction of the workers, less than 0.5 percent, would be a football or basketball player. That number would all but vanish if we expanded the survey to include all black workers employed in the United States last year: just 0.0133 percent! And tossing in black baseball players wouldn’t alter the picture: This year, according to the MLB, African Americans made up only 8.3 percent of opening-day rosters. (Remember, the above list is just a sampling of professions. For data on all occupation categories covered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, of which there are scores, click here.)

How to Redefine ‘Making It Big’ for Our Kids

Can we help it if African Americans are the majority in the NBA or are disproportionately represented in the NFL? Of course not. Nor should we! Talent speaks for itself. And should we be proud of the astonishing strides black athletes and the rest of our people have made in professional sports leagues, which before the 1940s were closed off to them? You better believe it! (Anyone who saw the “Black Fives” exhibit at the New York Historical Society this summer will tell you how long the road was to integration in basketball).  

But, and this is a big but, we also should be proud of the doctors, lawyers and teachers among us, the firefighters and police officers, the chefs and surgeons. We should know that our numbers in these professions and across the board are significant, and we should proclaim to anyone who will listen that the paths to all professions are within reach for every African-American child through education and hard work.

As I have said, when I was growing up, becoming a medical doctor was one of the highest ambitions to which a black child could aspire. My mother thought doctors sat in heaven at the right hand of Jesus. My brother and I were raised to become doctors; that’s what my mother and father expected. And although my brother became an oral surgeon and I chose to become a professor, it was our parents’ dreams and ambitions that took him to dental school and me to Yale, and then to Cambridge, where I was empowered to choose to become a different kind of doctor.