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.
These coaches are even less diverse than their players. At non-HBCUs, the NCAA's latest report for Division I baseball lists a pitiful rate of 0.5 percent and 1.6 percent for black head coaches and assistant coaches, respectively. This year's College World Series crop varies even less: Of the 32 head, assistant and volunteer coaches working for the eight programs, zero are black. Of course, black prep athletes sign up to play for white coaches in sports like football and basketball all the time. But those coaches can at least point to greater diversity among their athletes. Among sports with sizable African-American participation at the professional level, college baseball's top-to-bottom homogeneity is unmatched and most assuredly affects recruiting.
Then there's the matter of location. Rather than setting regional tournament games in downtown ballparks where it could attract new audiences, the NCAA opts for the insular feel of on-campus facilities in such multicultural bastions as Fullerton, Calif., Coral Gables, Fla. and Stillwater, Okla. And for decades, the game has been hidebound by one of the NCAA's most counterproductive traditions. Unlike most collegiate sports, baseball hosts its championship every year at the same place: Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. Any proposal to adopt a rotating site to promote the game more widely has been squashed, and the NCAA recently agreed to a new 25-year agreement to keep the World Series in town. (After all, who wants to hurt the pride of the good people of Omaha?) That means the CWS will continue to operate obscurely, in a state where the U.S. Census pegs the black population at 4 percent. You'll find no more African Americans in the stands at the CWS than you will on the basepaths.
What baseball fans are left with is a product that inspires only lukewarm support. The World Series marks the one time of year when most people can check out the collegiate game on television. What they find there is an unvaried, unrepresentative sea of white that detracts from any excitement on the field.
To its credit, the NCAA is trying to improve the diversity of its product. Next year, a new rule will ensure at least a 25 percent scholarship for each Division I recruit. And this spring marked the beginning of an "Urban Invitational" tournament in Compton, Calif., between traditional powerhouse schools and historically black colleges. Both measures will help. But I sense that unless there are far more dramatic changes in store—changes in attitude and changes in location that the NCAA seems unwilling to embrace—the situation is hopeless. I'll still find myself counting Caucasians, then losing count, then looking for the remote control.
Gregory Ruehlmann writes from Augusta, Georgia.