US sport: Talent takes the higher ground in a ruthless world

As America celebrates the breach of the colour bar in baseball 50 years ago, Rupert Cornwell considers Jackie Robinson's remarkable career while (below) John Carlin examines the contemporary racial balance in US sport
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The Independent Online
Professional basketball players in the United States earn an average annual salary of $2m (pounds 1.25m); baseball players $1.1m; American football players $767,000. Since more than 1,700 of the 3,200 sportsmen who play in the three big leagues are black, this would suggest that any lingering controversies about racial equality in American sports have been smacked firmly out of the ballpark.

But are these figures deceptive, as some would argue? Do they mask a subtle but powerful racial bias? A recent article in US News and World Report noted that all of the club presidents and chief executives in Major League Baseball and the National Football League were white, as were 93 per cent of those in the National Basketball Association.

These statistics could be interpreted as the stark expression of a a truth that dare not speak its name. Or almost doesn't dare. Al Campanis, a senior official at the Los Angeles Dodgers, bluntly volunteered the thought on network television 10 years ago that blacks "may lack some of the necessities" to succeed as baseball executives. "They are gifted with great musculature and various other things. They are fleet of foot. As far as having the background to be a club president, I don't know."

Campanis was out of a job within 48 hours, which showed how far American sport - like American society - had come since the days of Jackie Robinson in addressing the cosmetic niceties of race. A handful of other white sports figures since have endured suspensions and fines for less offensive deviations from the politically correct norm.

Yet the question is still asked, notably by civil rights leaders whose job is to ask such things, whether America has truly moved away from the stereotype of black sportsmen as muscled athletes short on brains. The answer, everything indicates, is that progress has been made and it is both premature and unfair to cast American sports in a harsh racial light.

There was a time when the unwritten rule in basketball, according to an old joke, was that you played three black players at home, four away and five if you were losing. But that was before black Americans gained full political equality with the passing of the Civil Rights Act 33 years ago, since when American sport has emerged as arguably the country's most reliably fair equal opportunity employer. As for the point about who owns the teams, money in America remains concentrated, for obvious historical reasons, in white hands and so the statistics about presidents and chief executives could be seen as bordering on the gratuitously tendentious.

A better test of how far things have advanced on the racial front may be found in the number of head coaches at the leading clubs. At first glance the figures are not encouraging. In major league baseball there are three out of 28; in the NFL there have been three out of 30, now there are two. In the NBA there are five out of 29.

But no less revealing are the figures for the number of assistant coaches, for these provide a better indicator of possible progress to come. In the NBA, where each team has six coaches in all, 28 out of 157 are black - about the same percentage as play on the field and higher than the percentage of blacks in the population as a whole, which is just under 12 per cent. In the NFL 85 out of 380 assistant coaches are black. In the NBA 25 out of 59 are black.

All of which indicates that it is simplistic to argue, as the Washington Post did last week, that while the colour barriers have been lifted on the field, off it they still stand. As for the brawn versus brain debate, American professional sport is first and foremost a ruthless business and anyone who imagines that the black men occupying vital coaching positions in basketball, football and baseball are there for reasons of charity is inhabiting a world of paranoid fantasy.

Michael Jordan earns $52.6m (pounds 32.8m) a year, if you add the endorsements, because he is a remarkable athlete but also because he is blessed with a superior tactical intelligence. None of his millions of fans - black or white - is in any doubt about that.

As for golf, a game which requires more mental discipline than any other, whatever stereotypes might remain Tiger Woods is busy smashing them to smithereens.

The truth about American sport today is that there is no purer meritocracy. Talent, not race, is what defines success. Money counts too, at another level, but in a couple of years both Jordan and Woods will be in a position to buy their own teams and, if they so choose, to name themselves presidents and chief executives, too.