Jackie Robinson would not recognize today’s sports world. The field of play—and, to a lesser degree, the business side—is much different from his first playing days and even from his last day on earth in 1972. With Black and brown men dominating as players in the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, it is truly a new day 60 years following Robinson’s integration of the national past time. There is even greater progress in most leagues and many team front offices.
But that feeling of extreme progress would disappear if Robinson were able to view today’s true corridors of power: ownership, corporate sponsors, networks and other media entities. In that realm, he would find himself chatting with Bob Johnson, founder of BET and owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and few others. In that setting, Robinson would be nearly as alone as he was on the field on April 15, 1947.
So how far have we come? There is undeniable progress in efforts for greater inclusion of people of color and women both in sports and beyond. But the issue is much more complicated than it was in Robinson’s day as the focus on diversity takes us beyond Black and white, beyond those who were brought to the Americas in chains and suffered unique oppression. Diffusion has certainly caused scattered attention, in both sports and other fields.
Beyond baseball there has been, for example, a great deal of progress on the money side of boxing. Robinson would be fascinated by boxing promoter Don King, who has made a financial killing in a business where, before him, Blacks simply were the labor in the brutal enterprise. Even in these later years, King seems to be omnipresent.
But Robinson also would look at NASCAR, the Indy Racing League, Professional Golfers Association of America and U.S. Tennis Association as vast wastelands. Most of them cannot even show much progress on the player side, apart from the exceptional Tiger Woods (PGA), Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick (NASCAR), and the Williams sisters and James Blake (USTA). There, he would reflect some on what issues these modern-day pioneers endure that connects him with them. But, even with that, from Robinson’s perspective, golf no longer has the whites-only restriction and women are now being paid the same as men at Wimbledon. That is progress.
We should absolutely celebrate the progress that has been made since Jackie Robinson’s historic breaking of the color barrier in baseball. The image of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith battling each other as African-American Super Bowl head coaches was a proud moment for us all. But, even in football, coaching the numbers for the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division 1A head football coaches is dismal at six out of 119. The picture is not an encouraging one as we move further up on the power levels of college presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors. The NCAA and major collegiate institutions stutter and stammer on how to bring about change while its professional counterpart, in a workmanlike manner, is addressing the issue head on in a systematic manner.
Change does not occur overnight, but it does not happen without organizational effort either.
Where are we? Jackie’s last public words were that he would be tremendously pleased when he looked down the third base line and saw a Black man managing. That dream—not so modest at the time—has been fulfilled. Since Frank Robinson debuted as manager of the Cleveland Indians NBA team in 1975, the feat has been repeated multiple times in the MLB, NFL and NBA.
But there is much yet to accomplish. Those larger goals, leadership in the true corridors of power, directly coincide with the degree of power in broader America. In our long, nationwide journey to equality, we are not yet at our destination. But it is not because of Jackie Robinson. The step he took on that baseball field in 1947 nudged the nation closer and helped mold our future.
Kenneth L. Shropshire is the David W. Hauck Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the author of several books on the business of sports, He may be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
By Kenneth L. Shropshire