Black players, white coaches
March Madness and college basketball’s glass ceiling
Kevin Kapenda // Hall of Famer
No other sport tells the story of America like basketball. This is especially true at the collegiate level, which predates professional leagues. Many of the game’s top coaches embody histories of European immigration and enclaving in Northeastern American cities. Of course, one obvious feature of collegiate and professional basketball is the high proportion of black players in relation to their population. This is the result of an event known as the Great Migration, which saw six million African-Americans emigrate from the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest and later, West Coast. When African-Americans left the South for more urban environments in the North and West, they also left their baseball diamonds too, and began playing basketball on the outdoor courts of their segregated neighbourhoods.
Unlike baseball and football, which had strong traditions of racial segregation, research by American scholar Scott Brooks suggests basketball was integrated early in its history, primarily because those who were playing it all faced certain levels of discrimination. This is not to suggest that the discrimination faced by European Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans was similar to what Blacks face, nor am I saying that those groups did not harbor anti-Black sentiments either. However, there is evidence that as early as the 1900s, racialized European teams and African-American teams were playing against each other in all-city leagues with prize purses. In comparison, professional baseball and football were not integrated until the late 1940s.
To this day, basketball continues to occupy a unique position in North America, as the first game to truly have an emancipatory impact on various populations. Many of the game’s top coaches, despite being white, are descendants of ethnic or religious groups for whom life was not always easy in America. Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski, arguably the game’s best ever, is the son of Polish Catholic immigrants from Chicago, a population that faced lots of discrimination in the US based on ethnicity and often being Catholic or Jewish, rather than Protestant. Many other coaches, such as Geno Auriemma, P.J. Carlesimo, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Dick Vitale and the late Jimmy Valvano are examples of Italian-Americans from the Northeast who achieved success as collegiate basketball coaches. Bruce Pearl and Larry Brown are two Jewish-Americans that have had successful careers, particularly Brown who won an NCAA Championship with UCLA, and led three different NBA teams to the Finals, capturing a title with Detroit.
However, as this month will show us, the fruits of the social mobility produced by basketball are not being enjoyed equally between those groups. March is when North American sports media devotes nearly all its time to NCAA division one basketball. It is the month when seasons end in conference tournaments, end during the “March Madness”, or conclude in April, during the National semifinals, played in a football stadium. What’s also great about March is the dinner table or water cooler conversations about “funny” college names, such as Austin Peay State, The Citadel, The University of Incarnate Word, and Oral Roberts (no offence).
However, lost in the emotion of single-game elimination and the humour of team names is the problem of Black representation in head coaching and administration. As of the latest American Press Top 25 Poll, the eminent ranking of the nation’s elite college basketball teams, only one of those teams, Houston, had an African-American coach. When evaluating trends in college sports, most discussions typically segment Division 1 athletics into power conference schools and mid-major conferences. Power five conference schools, as well as the American, Atlantic 10 and Big East have the best basketball programs, and thus, serve as the best indicators of not just who is coaching, but who is being given a shot at the highest levels. Amongst the 101 teams in the ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC, only 19 of the head coaches, or less than 20 per cent, are African-American. In comparison, for the 2016-17 academic year, 56 per cent of NCAA division one basketball players were Black.
While I am not arguing that the makeup of coaches should be exactly proportionate to that of players, this discrepancy does confirm long-standing perceptions about Black males in sports. That they are athletic and good enough to play, but not smart enough to coach and lead themselves. That they need an intelligent white male to channel their raw athleticism and improvisatory talent picked up on the school yard court. Basketball has allowed many racialized groups to achieve the elusive American Dream. However, it cannot continue to tell young Black males that their only place in the game is as players. Too many Black NCAA basketball and football players are precariously employed after college because of this.