Theory and Hypotheses (Expanded)
Studies in sport and mobility devote great attention to the relation between race and athletic involvement, particularly so within professional basketball, given African Americans’ overwhelming presence at the NBA level (Azzarito and Harrison 2008; Coakley 2004: 292-97; Edwards 1973: Chapter 7; Hartmann 2000; Ogden and Hilt 2003 Sellers and Kuperminc 1997; Pascarella and Smart 1991; Sailes 1998; Harris 1998; Spreitzer 1994; Harrison Jr. et al. 2004 Eide and Ronan 2001; Ewing 2007; Benson 2000). Common to all is the limited attention major stratification variables, social class origin and family structure background especially, receive (Washington and Karen 2001).
The omission is particularly troublesome as many refer to the odds of attainment to sustain their arguments, yet odds estimated in this manner do not account for the intersection of race, class and family structure (e.g. Eitzen 1999; Leonard 1996). Eitzen (1999) says that “…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.” The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) puts the odds of high school players being drafted by an NBA team at 3 in 10,000 (NCAA website). Taking race into account, the odds are reported to be as low as .000002 for whites and .000006 for Blacks (Leonard 1996: 296).
To explain why race matters for athletic attainment, the current literature focuses on debunking genetic theories, and positing theories that explain how social context matters most (Coakley 2004: 292-97; Edwards 1973: Chapter 7; Hartmann 2000; Ogden and Hilt 2003). Most social context theorists debate the intersection of race with micro and macro level social environment mechanisms, such as role model behavior, cultural proclivities, media influences, and limited occupational opportunities (Ogden and Hilt 2003; Edwards 1973; Sellers and Kuperminc 1997; Pascarella and Smart 1991; Sailes 1998; Harris 1998; Spreitzer 1994; Harrison Jr. et al. 2004; May 2009). Some argue that for historically marginalized groups such as African American males sport is a pathway to upward mobility because it provides college scholarships and psychological intangibles that can be translated into success in the labor market (Eide and Ronan 2001; Ewing 2007). Others argue that persistent racial discrimination, social inequalities and stereotypes attached to African American males’ overrepresentation in sports critically impact the relationship between race, sport and mobility. Racial minorities in the US, and African Americans especially, are often locked into lower social positions, a problem for which involvement into professional sports does not offer a straight-forward solution (Benson 2000; Edwards 1973; Washington and Karen 2001: 189). Moreover, the pathway to fame and fortune, especially with regards to the National Basketball Association, goes through “big-time” athletic programs where graduation rates for college basketball athletes are lower than the rest of the college population (Eitzen 1996: 101). In all, however, there is little disagreement that race affects sport mobility.
Occupational attainment research consistently shows that other things considered, people from disadvantaged social origin – in terms of class and family structure — fare less well in the stratification system than those of more privileged social origin. Family socioeconomic status positively influences the odds of sports participation (Eitle and Eitle 2002; Fjegin 1994; Spreitzer 1994). For those in middle school, family socioeconomic status positively influences the odds of sports participation (Eitle and Eitle 2002; Fjegin 1994). For NBA attainment, however, the effect of socioeconomic disadvantage at the high school level is critical: measuring disadvantage in terms of family income, Spreitzer (1994) argues that freshman high school athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to continue school athletics in their sophomore year and were more likely to have dropped out of athletics by their senior year (368). Since high school is a necessary step to playing in college or, more recently, a leap into the professional leagues, disadvantaged background should play a substantial role in influencing the odds of becoming a professional athlete. Classic studies of occupational attainment prompt us to consider also the role of players’ family structure background. Braddock et al (1981) find that African American male 8th graders from two-parent homes are more likely to participate in interscholastic and intramural sports than those from single parent homes (119), which may indicate that family structure disadvantage influences the pathway to professional athlete attainment. The above-mentioned theoretical considerations point to the complex picture of relative disadvantage that the intersection of race with class and family structure background can produce in the American stratification system.
Support for class related variables in assessing sport occupational attainment was found in a recent ESPN Magazine report (Craggs 2008). Craggs used U.S. Census 2000 data to examine the hometowns – their measure of social origins — of 158 American-born players from the NBA drafts between 1998 and 2008, and found that the majority of these players are from middle class hometowns: “The median household income of our draftees’ hometowns was $38,127, which tracks closely with the national average of $41,994.” Underscoring this finding is that the NBA draftees hailed from hometowns that had about the same percentage of people who graduated from high school as the national average. While a rather insensitive measure of social origins, it does suggest further inquiry into the class and family background of NBA players.
To date however, very few studies examine the issue of intersectionality with regard to race, class and family structure and sport participation in general, and professional athlete status attainment in particular. For example, whether measured as lower social class position or growing up in a single parent household, African Americans are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds than whites (Winant 2000). Race is generally considered to be a valid indicator of disadvantage (economic, but not only), but one should remember that class and family structure background differentiation within racial categories also exists.
Currently, no large N data exist that have professional athletes as the units of analysis and include basic variables of race, class, and family structure background. This limits professional athlete status attainment studies to quantitative analyses of macro-level data that cannot account for the intersection of race, class, and family structure (e.g. Eitzen 1999; Leonard 1996; NCAA), and small N qualitative and case studies that account for this intersectionality but are not generalizable (e.g. the movie Hoop Dreams 1994).
Our main research hypothesis states that race – in conjunction with social class and family structure background – influences the odds of attaining the status of professional basketball players, in this case, membership in the NBA. This translates into the following expectations:
a) Due to the relatively high level of resources required to achieve a professional athletics career, African-American players from disadvantaged social class should be less likely to become professional basketball athletes than African American and white players from relatively well-off families. In other words, they should have lower odds of being in the NBA.
b) The same mechanism leads us to expect that African Americans from disadvantaged family structure background are less likely than African American and white players from advantaged family structure background to populate professional basketball leagues.
c) Given our argument that non-white race and disadvantaged social origin intersect, we expect African Americans from disadvantaged class and family backgrounds to be the least likely to be present in the NBA.
d) Given this causal chain, we argue that even if the majority of professional basketball players were raised in non-two-parent families, most should come from the middle class and above. In consequence, among professional basketball players compounded disadvantage, i.e. both low social class and non-two parent family structure background, should be rare, yet more common among African-Americans than among whites.