I remember a teacher telling me years ago in a Statistics class that “there is always an exception to the rule, but that doesn’t necessarily change the rule”. I was thinking about this recently after receiving an email which read, “you know things are messed up when the tallest player in the N.B.A. is Chinese, the best golfer is Black, and the best Rapper is White”. While I don’t know about the ‘Rapping’ part, it is true that ‘Ming’ is the tallest player in the N.B.A. at almost 8 feet tall, and ‘Tiger’ is one, if not the best golfer in the world. But just like exceptions in other areas of life, do these exceptions in sports really change the rules, or is culture and environment the deciding factors in which sports we participate in.
Growing up in Baltimore, sports was a major part of my life. The sports of choice for me and the other kids in the neighborhood back then were baseball and football, with basketball being a distant third. We usually played baseball from April till the end of Summer and then picked up with football in the Fall. Sports such as tennis, golf, lacrosse, and swimming were virtually non existent. Poor kids as a ‘rule’ didn’t play those kinds of games, they were for the rich kids. Golf clubs cost money, much more than a baseball and bat. And besides none of us would be caught dead in the clothes you have to wear on the course.
Over the years, the neighborhood produced quite a few exceptional athletes. A few went on to play professionally in baseball and football. There were many others who would have probably made the grade if they hadn’t succumbed to some of the neighborhood influences such as drugs and alcohol. But of all the great athletes I played with growing up, I don’t remember any exceptional golfer, swimmer, tennis or lacrosse players. In fact, I don’t remember anyone ever having played those sports. Are things really any different today?
It’s no coincidence that the majority of the players who make up the N.B.A. and N.F.L. are Black. It’s a combination of skill and access. Growing up in the inner city, there’s not a lot of room or facilities for sports. Basketball is the game of choice for inner city kids. Basketball courts don’t require a lot of space and makeshift baskets can be set up anywhere. Hours spent honing skills on neighborhood courts turn out some fantastic players. High schools in the cities also put a lot of emphasis on basketball and football. And unlike other sports, basketball and football are ‘cool’.
Baseball on the other hand has evolved from years ago. At one time, it was an American sport. Today, baseball is international. In fact, look at the roster of just about any Major League Baseball team, and you’ll find many of the most talented players coming from Latin American countries. Again, it’s no coincidence that baseball has grown in popularity in these countries. It’s a sport that can be played by just about anyone with a ball, bat, glove and an open field. No fancy equipment or facilities needed. And with the weather permitting the game to played virtually year round, it’s no wonder that these countries are producing so many players for M.L.B.
The ‘other’ sports like tennis, golf, swimming and things like figure skating, and ballet will continue to be sports participated in largely by people with means and access. You just won’t find many ice rinks or swimming clubs in poor neighborhoods and while there may be an occasional golf course here or there, the equipment and fees put it out of the reach of most people of modest means.
Culture and environment will continue to shape the world of sports. While there be the occasional Larry Bird, or Tiger Woods, the games will most likely continue to be dominated by the people who have access to them. I was thinking just now; if Michael Jordan had grown up in Canada, and Wayne Grektze in the U.S., would they have achieved the same greatness in the sport that chose them?