Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

Why Are There So Many Black Athletes?

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Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 89: Why are there so many black people playing professional sports in the United States?


The short answer: There aren’t!  

When I was growing up in the 1950s, we were taught that we had a much better chance of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, a dentist or a teacher or a preacher than a professional athlete. In fact, I’d venture to say that the “blackest” thing a black child could aspire to be in the ’50s and early ’60s was a doctor or a lawyer, not a baseball, basketball or football player. Educated black women and men were the heroes of the race, along with the brilliant black athletes who were knocking down the barriers of segregation in professional sports. But even though we all admired and cheered on those pioneers in sport, few of us thought of these as viable career options for the “average” African American. I worry that, in terms of the career goals for which our children now aim, that outlook has changed—and changed for the worse—with potentially disastrous consequences.


As we suit up for the return to work tomorrow, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of African Americans, like all Americans, go to ordinary jobs and, in them, do extraordinary things. I say this both to honor working men and women everywhere this Labor Day and to challenge the belief among all too many of our children that the dream to aim for is a sports scholarship or being drafted by a professional basketball or football team.   

Which Are More Numerous: Black Pro-Ballers or Neurologists?

I root for my favorite teams and players with as much passion and devotion as anyone. Yet I fear the distorted belief held by some of our young people that it is easier to make it into the pros than to get into college can too often lead to the harmful internalization of one-dimensional stereotypes, not to mention massive, widespread disappointment for those who fall short of obtaining long-term wealth through sports or for those who suffer a career-ending injury. Being overly focused on sports as a viable career option denies our young people a broader array of successful role models to inspire their ambition and study, starting with grade school, and their advancement through the school system onto college.


With this top of mind, I dug into the numbers on contemporary African-American occupations. What I found may surprise you; I know it astonished me. My main hope, though, is that these statistics will stimulate more informed career conversations when our young people seeking advice about the future come knocking on your door.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey,” last year African Americans were represented in a broad range of occupations. I encourage you to check out the full list, but below are the jobs that caught my eye, including both the raw numbers and percentages (in parentheses) of black workers within each job category. For reference, the 16.1 million African Americans working in 2013 made up 11.2 percent of all employed U.S. workers and were approximately 13.2 percent of the population as a whole.

  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officers: 98,974 (14.2 percent of all police and sheriff’s patrol officers)
  • Post-secondary teachers: 89,284 (6.8 percent of all post-secondary teachers)
  • Physicians and surgeons: 59,776 (6.4 percent of all physicians and surgeons)
  • Chefs: 58,225 (13.7 percent of all chefs)
  • Lawyers: 45,864 (4.2 percent of all lawyers)
  • Clergy: 37,310 (9.1 percent of all clergy)
  • Civil engineers: 23,040 (6.4 percent of all civil engineers)
  • Pharmacists: 14,958 (5.4 percent of all pharmacists)
  • Writers and authors: 10,032 (4.8 percent of all writers and authors)
  • Dentists: 8,601 (4.7 percent of all dentists, including my brother, Dr. Paul Gates)
  • Psychologists: 6,696 (3.6 percent of all psychologists)
  • Architects: 3,088 (1.6 percent of all architects)

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.  


Parents, please, I beg you, set the same expectation of your children and their friends. Give them the knowledge that, although African-American athletes are insanely gifted, they aren’t the majority or even a small fraction of black professionals doing extraordinary things in the workforce today.   

And if they ask you why such a high proportion of NFL and NBA players are black, well, wink and tell them that’s just the way the ball bounces. Then tell them that the first job they will ever have is going to school and that it will pay them throughout their lives in ways no numbers—and certainly no scoreboard—can capture.  


Most of all, this Labor Day, let us recognize the 17 million African Americans currently employed in the United States and challenge each other to do everything we can to bring the more troubling unemployment rate in our community—a staggering 11.4 percent—down. In that race, we all must be athletes.  

As “the father of black nationalism,” Martin Robison Delany, said all the way back in 1852, just over a decade before emancipation: “Our elevation must be the result of self-efforts, and work of our own hands. No other human power can accomplish it.”


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.