Upward Mobility Through Sport?

Americans believe that sport is a path to upward social mobility. This belief
is based on the obvious examples we see as poor boys and men (rarely girls and
women) from rural and urban areas, whether white or black, sometimes skyrocket
to fame and fortune through success in sports. Sometimes the financial reward
has been astounding, such as the high pay that some African American athletes
received in recent years. In 1997 Tracy McGrady, an NBA-bound high school
star, bypassed college, signed a $12 million deal over 6 years with Adidas.
Golfer Tiger Woods in his first year as a professional made $6.82 million in
winnings (U.S. and worldwide) and appearance fees plus signed a series of
five-year deals with Nike, Titleist, American Express, and Rolex worth $95.2
million. In 1998 Woods’s earnings from endorsements totaled $28 million.
Boxer Mike Tyson made $75 million in 1996. It is estimated that Michael Jordan
made over $100 million in 1998, including salary, endorsements, and income
from merchandise and videos. The recent deals for baseball stars, some
exceeding $15 million a year for multiyear contracts, further underscores the
incredible money given to some individuals for their athletic talents.

But while the possibility of
staggering wealth and status through sport is possible, the reality is that
dramatic upward mobility through sport is highly improbable. A number of
myths, however, combine to lead us to believe that sport is a social mobility


Sport Provides a Free Education

high school athletes get college scholarships. These athletic scholarships are
especially helpful to poor youth who otherwise would not be able to attend
college because of the high costs. The problem with this assumption is that
while true for some, very few high school athletes actually receive full
scholarships. Football provides the easiest route to a college scholarship
because Division I-A colleges have 85 football scholarships, but even this
avenue is exceedingly narrow. In Colorado there were 3,481 male high school
seniors who played football during the 1994 season. Of these, 31 received full
scholarships at Division I-A schools (0.0089 percent).

Second, of all the male
varsity athletes at all college levels only about 15 percent to 20 percent
have full scholarships. Another 15 percent to 25 percent have partial
scholarships, leaving 55 percent to 70 percent of all intercollegiate athletes
without any sport related financial assistance. Third, as low as the chances
are for men, women athletes have even less chance to receive an athletic
scholarship. While women comprise about 52 percent of all college students,
they make up only 35 percent of intercollegiate athletes with a similar
disproportionate distribution of scholarships. Another reality is that if you
are a male athlete in a so-called minor sport (swimming, tennis, golf,
gymnastics, cross-country, wrestling), the chances of a full scholarship are
virtually nil. The best hope is a partial scholarship, if that, since these
sports are under funded and in danger of elimination at many schools.


Sport Leads to a College Degree

graduates exceed high school graduates by hundreds of thousands of dollars in
lifetime earnings. Since most high school and college athletes will never play
at the professional level, the attainment of a college degree is a crucial
determinant of upward mobility through sport. The problem is that relatively
few male athletes in the big time revenue producing sports, compared to their
non-athletic peers, actually receive college degrees. This is especially the
case for African American men who are over represented in the revenue
producing sports. In 1996, for example, looking at the athletes who entered
Division I schools in 1990, only 45 percent of African American football
players and 39 percent of African American basketball players had graduated
(compared to 56 percent of the general student body).

There are a number of
barriers to graduation for male athletes. The demands on their time and energy
are enormous even in the off-season. Many athletes, because of these
pressures, take easy courses to maintain eligibility but do not lead to
graduation. The result is either to delay graduation or to make graduation an
unrealistic goal.

Another barrier is that they
are recruited for athletic prowess rather than academic ability. Recent data
show that football players in big time programs are, on average, more than 200
points behind their non-athletic classmates on SAT test scores. Poorly
prepared students are the most likely to take easy courses, cheat on exams,
hire surrogate test takers, and otherwise do the minimum.

A third barrier to graduation
for male college athletes is themselves, as they may not take advantage of
their scholarships to obtain a quality education. This is especially the case
for those who perceive their college experience only as preparation for their
professional careers in sport. Study for them is necessary only to maintain
their eligibility. The goal of a professional career is unrealistic for all
but the superstars. The superstars who do make it at the professional level,
more likely than not, will have not graduated from college; nor will they go
back to finish their degrees when their professional careers are over. This is
also because even a successful professional athletic career is limited to a
few years, and not many professional athletes are able to translate their
success in the pros to success in their post-athletic careers. Such a problem
is especially true for African Americans, who often face employment
discrimination in the wider society.




Myth: A
Sports Career Is Probable

recent survey by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society found that
two-thirds of African American males between the ages of 13 and 18 believe
that they can earn a living playing professional sports (more than double the
proportion of young white males who hold such beliefs). Moreover, African
American parents were four times more likely than white parents to believe
that their sons are destined for careers as professional athletes.

If these young athletes could
play as professionals, the economic rewards are excellent, especially in
basketball and baseball. In 1998 the average annual salary for professional
basketball was $2.24 million. In baseball the average salary was $1.37 million
with 280 of the 774 players on opening day rosters making $1 million or more
(of them, 197 exceeded $2 million or more, while 32 of them made $6 million or
more). The average salaries for the National Hockey League and National
Football League were $892,000 and $795,000, respectively. In football, for
example, 19 percent of the players (333 of 1,765) exceeded $1 million in
salary. These numbers are inflated by the use of averages, which are skewed by
the salaries of the superstars. Use of the median (in which half the players
make more and half make less), reveals that the median salary in basketball
was $1.4 million; baseball—$500,000; football—$400,000; and
hockey—$500,000. Regardless of the measure, the financial allure of a
professional sports career is great.

A career in professional
sports is nearly impossible to attain because of the fierce competition for so
few openings. In an average year there are approximately 1,900,000 American
boys playing high school football, basketball, and baseball. Another 68,000
men are playing those sports in college, and 2,490 are participating at the
major professional level. In short, one in 27 high school players in these
sports will play at the college level, and only one in 736 high school players
will play at the major professional level (0.14 percent). In baseball, each
year about 120,000 players are eligible for the draft (high school seniors,
college seniors, collegians over 21, junior college players, and foreign
players). Only about 1,200 (1 percent) are actually drafted, and most of them
will never make it to the major leagues. Indeed, only one in ten of those
players who sign a professional baseball contract ever play in the major
leagues for at least one day.

The same rigorous
condensation process occurs in football. About 15,000 players are eligible for
the NFL draft each year. Three hundred thirty-six are drafted and about 160
actually make the final roster. Similarly, in basketball and hockey, only
about 40 new players are added to the rosters in the NBA and 60 rookies make
the NHL each year. In tennis only about 100 men and 100 women make enough
money to cover expenses. In golf, of the 165 men eligible for the PGA tour in
1997, their official winnings ranged from $2,066,833 (Tiger Woods) to $10,653
(Chip Beck). The competition among these golfers is fierce. On average, the
top 100 golfers on the tour play within 2 strokes of each other for every 18
holes, yet Tiger Woods, the tops in winnings won over $2 million, and the
100th finisher won only $250,000. Below the PGA tour is the Nike Tour where
the next best 125 golfers compete. Their winnings were a top of $225,201 to a
low of $9,944.



Sport Is a Way Out of Poverty

appears to be a major way for African Americans to escape the ghetto. African
Americans dominate the major professional sports numerically. While only 12
percent of the population, African Americans comprise about 80 percent of the
players in professional basketball, about 67 percent of professional football
players, and 18 percent of professional baseball players (Latinos also
comprise about 17 percent of professional baseball players). Moreover, African
Americans dominate the list of the highest moneymakers in sport (salaries,
commercial sponsorships). These facts, while true, are illusory.

While African Americans
dominate professional basketball, football, and to a lesser extent baseball,
they are rarely found in certain sports such as hockey, automobile racing,
tennis, golf, bowling, and skiing. Moreover, African Americans are severely
under-represented in positions of authority in sport—as head coaches,
referees, athletic directors, scouts, general managers, and owners. In the NFL
in 1997, for example, where more than two-thirds of the players were African
American, only three head coaches and five offensive or defensive coordinators
were African American. In that year there were 11 head coaching vacancies
filled, none by African Americans. The reason for this racial imbalance in
hiring, according to white sports columnist for the Rocky Mountain News Bob
Kravitz is that: “something here stinks, and it stinks a lot like racism.”

Second, while the odds of
African American males making it as professional athletes are more favorable
than is the case for whites (about 1 in 3,500 African American male high
school athletes, compared to 1 in 10,000 white male high school athletes)
these odds remain slim. Of the 40,000 or so African Americans boys who play
high school basketball, only 35 will make the NBA and only 7 will be starters.
Referring to the low odds for young African Americans, Harry Edwards, an
African American sociologist specializing in the sociology of sport, said with
a bit of hyperbole: “Statistically, you have a better chance of getting hit
by a meteorite in the next ten years than getting work as an athlete.”

Despite these discouraging
facts, the myth is alive for poor youth. As noted earlier, two-thirds of
African American boys believe they can be professional athletes. Their
parents, too, accept this belief (African American parents are four times more
likely than white parents to believe that their children will be professional
athletes). The film Hoop Dreams and Darcey Frey’s book The Last
Shot: City Street,
Basketball Dreams document the emphasis that
young African American men place on sports as a way up and their ultimate
disappointments from sport. For many of them, sport represents their only hope
of escape from a life of crime, poverty, and despair. They latch on to the
dream of athletic success partly because of the few opportunities for
middle-class success. They spend many hours per day developing their speed,
strength, jumping height, or “moves” to the virtual exclusion of those
abilities that have a greater likelihood of paying off in upward mobility such
as reading comprehension, mathematical reasoning, communication skills, and
computer literacy.

Sociologist Jay Coakley puts
it this way: “My best guess is that less than 3,500 African Americans …are
making their livings as professional athletes. At the same time (in 1996),
there are about 30,015 black physicians and about 30,800 black lawyers
currently employed in the U.S. Therefore, there are 20 times more blacks
working in these two professions than playing top level professional sports.
And physicians and lawyers usually have lifetime earnings far in excess of the
earnings of professional athletes, whose playing careers, on average, last
less than five years.”

Harry Edwards posits that by
spending their energies and talents on athletic skills, young African
Americans are not pursuing occupations that would help them meet their
political and material needs. Thus, because of belief in the “sports as a
way up” myth, they remain dependent on whites and white institutions. Salim
Muwakkil, an African American political analyst, argues that “If African
Americans are to exploit the socio-economic options opened by varied civil
rights struggles more fully, blacks must reduce the disproportionate allure of
sports in their communities. Black leadership must contextualize athletic
success by promoting other avenues to social status, intensifying the struggle
for access to those avenues and better educating youth about those potholes on
the road to the stadium.”

John Hoberman in his book
Darwin’s Athletes
also challenges the assumption that sport has
progressive consequences. The success of African Americans in the highly
visible sports gives white America a false sense of black progress and
interracial harmony. But the social progress of African Americans in general
has little relationship to the apparent integration that they have achieved on
the playing fields.

Hoberman also contends that
the numerical superiority of African Americans in sport, coupled with their
disproportionate under-representation in other professions reinforces the
racist ideology that African Americans, while physically superior to whites
are inferior to them intellectually.

I do not mean to say that
African Americans should not seek a career in professional sport. What is
harmful is that the odds of success are so slim, making the extraordinary
efforts over many years futile and misguided for the vast majority.



Women Have Sport as a Vehicle

the passage of Title IX in 1972 that required schools receiving federal funds
to provide equal opportunities for women and men, sports participation by
women in high school and  college has increased dramatically. In 1973,
for example, when 50,000 men received some form of college scholarship for
their athletic abilities, women received only 50. Now, women receive about 35
percent of the money allotted for college athletic scholarships (while a
dramatic improvement, this should not be equated with gender equality as many
would have us believe). This allows many women athletes to attend college who
otherwise could not afford it, thus receiving an indirect upward mobility

Upward mobility as a result
of being a professional athlete is another matter for women. Women have fewer
opportunities than men in professional team sports. Beach volleyball is a
possibility for a few but the rewards are minimal. Two professional women’s
basketball leagues began in 1997, but the pay was very low compared to men and
the leagues were on shaky financial ground (the average salary in the American
Basketball League was $80,000). The other option for women is to play in
professional leagues in Europe, Australia, and Asia but the pay is relatively

Women have more opportunities
as professionals in individual sports such as tennis, golf, ice-skating,
skiing, bowling, cycling, and track. Ironically, the sports with the greatest
monetary rewards for women are those of the middle and upper classes (tennis,
golf, and ice skating). These sports are expensive and require considerable
individual coaching and access to private facilities.

Ironically, with the passage
of Title IX, which increased the participation rates of women so dramatically,
there has been a decline in the number and proportion of women as coaches and
athletic administrators. In addition to the glaring pay gap between what the
coaches of men’s teams receive compared to the coaches of women’s teams,
men who coach women’s teams tend to have higher salaries than women coaching
women’s teams. Women also have fewer opportunities than men as athletic
trainers, officials, sports journalists, and other adjunct positions.



Sports Provides Lifelong Security

when a professional sport career is attained, the probabilities of fame and
fortune are limited. Of course, some athletes make incomes from salaries and
endorsements that if invested wisely, provide financial security for life.
Many professional athletes make relatively low salaries. During the 1996
season, for example, 17 percent of major league baseball players made the
minimum salary of $247,500 for veterans and $220,000 for rookies. This is a
lot of money, but for these marginal players their careers may not last very
long. Indeed, the average length of a professional career in a team sport is
about five years. A marginal athlete in individual sports such as golf,
tennis, boxing, and bowling, struggle financially. They must cover their
travel expenses, health insurance, equipment, and the like with no guaranteed
paycheck. The brief career diverts them during their youth from developing
other career skills and experiences that would benefit them.

Ex-professional athletes
leave sport, on average, when they are in their late 20s or early 30s, at a
time when their non-athletic peers have begun to establish themselves in
occupations leading toward retirement in 40 years or so. What are the
ex-professional athletes to do with their remaining productive years?

Exiting a sports career can
be relatively smooth or difficult. Some athletes have planned ahead, preparing
for other careers either in sport (coaching, scouting, administering) or some
non-sport occupation. Others have not prepared for this abrupt change. They
did not graduate from college. They did not spend the off seasons apprenticing
non-sport jobs. Exiting the athlete role is difficult for many because they
lose: (l) What has been the focus of their being for most of their lives; (2)
the primary source of their identities; (3) their physical prowess; (4) the
adulation bordering on worship from others; (5) the money and the perquisites
of fame; (6) the camaraderie with teammates; (7) the intense “highs” of
competition; and (8) for most ex-athletes retirement means a loss of status.
As a result of these “losses,” many ex-professional athletes have trouble
adjusting to life after sport. A study by the NFL Players Association found,
that emotional difficulties, divorce, and financial strain were common
problems for ex-professional football players. A majority had “permanent
injuries” from football.

The allure of sport, however,
remains strong and this has at least two negative consequences. First, ghetto
youngsters who devote their lives to the pursuit of athletic stardom are,
except for the fortunate few, doomed to failure in sport and in the real world
where sports skills are essentially irrelevant to occupational placement and
advancement. The second negative consequence is more subtle but very
important. Sport contributes to the ideology that legitimizes social
inequalities and promotes the myth that all it takes is extraordinary effort
to succeed. Sport sociologist George H. Sage makes this point forcefully:
“Because sport is by nature meritocratic—that is, superior performance
brings status and rewards—it provides convincing symbolic support for
hegemonic [the dominant] ideology—that ambitious, dedicated, hard working
individuals, regardless of social origin, can achieve success and ascend in
the social hierarchy, obtaining high status and material rewards, while those
who don’t move upward simply didn’t work hard enough. Because the
rags-to-riches athletes are so visible, the social mobility theme is
maintained. This reflects the opportunity structure of society in
general—the success of a few reproduces the belief in social mobility among
the many.”      Z

article is excerpted from a forthcoming book,

and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport
Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, February 1999). D. Stanley Eitzen is
professor emeritus of sociology at Colorado State University. He is a former
president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and a
Sports Ethics Fellow of the Institute for International Sport.