A basketball coming out of a hoop.

The Over-Indexing of Black Athletes in Sports

Our 6-year-old has been watching March Madness with us and recently asked, “why are most of the players darker?” Was I wrong to say those players are typically better at the sport of basketball? 

It’s wrong to say that “those players” are “typically better.” In fact, decades of research have proven that there are virtually no genetic and biological differences between people of different races, especially any that would make people from a certain racial/ethnic background better at basketball than others. The biological determinants, once heralded as key differences between people of different racial and ethnic identities are more likely a product of racism, not race. Everything from variations in health determinants to economic opportunities is a product of our environments, not our genetic composition (Learning for Justice). 

Today, Black athletes make up roughly 41% of the rosters in the five major American sports leagues (The Guardian). Black people over-index in sports leagues because society has granted few other spaces for us to thrive. With significant barriers to higher education, employment, economic opportunities, and career advancement, it’s not surprising that many people would try to try to find success in this field. Historically, Black people were rarely visible outside of sports and entertainment, only cementing a vision of success for Black youth.  


Donate to RISE, a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate racial discrimination from sports at all levels.

• Learn more about the first annual National Black Women in Sports Day, which marks July 7 as a day to honor the representation of Black women in sports.

• Support Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that champions LGBTQI+ inclusion in and through sports, especially trans players.

Also, sports scholarships are critical for many Black men to attend colleges and universities, a trend likely to grow after the recent Supreme Court decision to end affirmative action. According to the NCCA, Black men are over 7x more likely than white men to be scholarship athletes. One out of every nine Black men on campus is on athletic financial aid, compared to 1 in 67 white men (The American Prospect). When access to higher education has otherwise been intentionally limited for Black people, playing a sport has become the most likely way to get accepted. Remember, college athletics is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the students don’t get paid for participation. And until 2021, they weren’t allowed to pursue sponsorships to monetize their fame (NYTimes). 

Despite this, Black women haven’t seen the same types of opportunities as their male counterparts. Title XI, a federal law implemented to prevent discrimination by sex in educational programs, including sports, has overwhelmingly supported white women (specifically cisgender white women, as advocates for trans representation in sports note). Similar trends were seen with the implementation of affirmative action. Across the board, the majority of women in NCAA sports are white. Even in basketball, 50% of the women players are white, compared to 30% Black. But after basketball and track and field, Black women make up no more than 11% of the demographics of other sports (NYTimes). 

As this article in the Guardian states, the perception of Black people in sports has reinforced harmful stereotypes. Black athletes are always celebrated for their physicality before their intellect, strategy, and leadership ability (The Guardian). Athletes are often dehumanized and labeled as angry or aggressive, especially Black women. The recent treatment of college student and basketball player Angel Reese emphasizes how distinctly Black players are treated differently than white players. This is likely influenced by the fact that most sports journalists are white and male and are writing without the lived experience or learned understanding of Black people in their articles. Only 5% of sports journalists are Black, and only 15% are women (Pew Research). 

And this extends beyond media. As students, Black athletes are more frequently hyper-surveilled, monitored, and controlled on their own campuses through various tools—including major clustering and placement of “class checkers”—than their non-Black counterparts (Global Sports Matter). 

Despite the number of Black players in major sports leagues, there’s scant representation of Black people in sports leadership (NYTimes). On the collegiate level in 2021, 22.7% of the coaches in men’s Division I basketball in the 2019-20 season were Black, while 53.2% of the players were white (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports). As of 2022, only three head coaches in the NFL are Black (Washington Post). Until recently, only one Black majority owner of a major sports franchise, Michael Jordan, had a controlling interest in the Charlotte Hornets. Last week, he sold his ownership to a group of investors; at least one, the artist J. Cole, is Black (Bleacher Report). There are only six majority owners that identify as people of color. This gross disparity is partly why critics argue that sports like basketball and football, where Black people are overrepresented on the field but not in “ownership,” feels like another form of slavery (NYTimes). 

Despite over-indexing on the court, the number of Black people in sports is still pretty slim overall. As this 2014 article states, there are more Black cardiologists and neurologists than those playing in the NBA. We understand what we see, especially as children. Instead of focusing on representation in sports, share that there are successful Black people in many fields because of their hard work and dedication—and there would be more if we created the space for them to have equitable paths to achieving their dreams.


• Despite being over-represented on the court, Black people are severely underrepresented in leadership and ownership.

• Although Black people are visible as athletes, they’re statistically more represented in other fields than basketball, like cardiology or neurology.

• Black athletes might be overrepresented but deal with discrimination and stereotyping, as opposed to their white counterparts.

2400 1565 Nicole Cardoza

Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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