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Both a dream and an escape plan: how young African-Americans see sports as the way out for a better life

Blog post by Andi Haxhiu, University of Edinburgh, UK

Ken Carter, whose character inspired the realisation of the inspirational 2005 basketball movie, Coach Carter, decided to end the 1999 undefeated streak of Richmond High School basketball team because of his players’ poor academic performance. His decision to lock the school gym and cancel the upcoming basketball matches, despite opposition amongst the Richmond community, garnered enormous US media attention framing it as an elevation of education over sports. While extensively elaborating and rationalising the gym shut-down in front of his students, Coach Carter posed a rhetorical question that resonates amongst recent events of police brutality and racial injustice in the US: where do these students end up after graduating high school? The answer for those who do not make it to college or into a professional sports career is, for many, probably prison.

Even though the US imprisonment rates have recently experienced its most significant decline in the last two decades, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2018) data indicate that the US prison population’s racial and ethnic makeup remains highly disproportionate to the actual demographics in the country. According to the US Justice Department, black Americans represent 33% of the sentenced prison population – a number nearly triple the 12% share of their US adult population. Even though the racial margin of incarceration has been in decline, black Americans constitute two times the rate of imprisoned Hispanics and slightly above five times the rate of imprisoned whites in the United States.

However, while the data suggests that many African-Americans are very likely to end up in prison if not enrolled in college, the current professional US sport’s predominately black composed demographics serve as a referential source of hope for many young African-American children. For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the world leader in terms of player diversity, with 80.7% of its athletes being African-American or black. The NBA has recently played a significant role in echoing players’ statements on police brutality and racial injustice. The National Football League (NFL), on the other hand, despite controversies towards not allowing players to kneel during the national anthem as a form of racial injustice protest, is composed of slightly over 70% black athletes. Nevertheless, while the US’s professional sports demographics indicate the presence of diversity, it is approximated that only one in a half-of-million children will have the chance to play some sort of professional sport eventually. This statistically unlikely-achievable dream of being a professional athlete has been the much-anticipated way out for a better life for many of the African-Americans.

George Floyd had dreams of becoming a professional athlete. His exceptional talent in football and basketball was worthy of a Division I team. To Floyd, making it into a professional sports career meant paving the ‘path out of poverty, crime, and drugs of Houston’s Third Ward’. However, to put it in Floyd’s words, his shaky education stood in the way of his future. Even though by the time George Floyd had started his studies the city schools were desegregated, the structural discrepancies had created an environment as segregated as ever. Thus, by the end of his senior year, almost none of the students who had taken college entrance exams showed college-ready performance. It is ironic that, like many of his peers, the man who was destined to make it into a professional sports career was killed both metaphorically and literally by the education and justice system.

If it was not for the devastating violence of the Minneapolis police officer who had his knee over George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Floyd could have ended as just another one of the half-of-million dreamers that perceived sports as the only plan for a better future.