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The poor living conditions of many black people living in the United States have created a desperate situation in which many black youths are pushed and pulled into the world of athletics, most often with disastrous consequences. A survey of black youths found that 66% believed they could make a living playing pro-sports.1 The fame of superstars such as Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, and other successful black athletes has led to an overemphasis on sports in the black community. In reality, the odds are 10,000 to 1 against becoming a professional athlete.2 As well, the horrible conditions of black Americans living in inner cities, which include rampant crime, poverty and limited opportunities, have created a desperate situation. Many black people perceive that the only way out is through success in athletics.

The social and economic prosperity of many black people in the United States appears to have no relation to the desperate situation that the black community faces as a whole. A quick look at some statistics paints a clear picture of this situation. The average black household’s net worth is one-tenth that of white people. Forty percent of black people live below the poverty line, compared to 12% of white people. Half of all black children live in poverty. The black infant mortality rate is twice as high as it is for white people. Forty percent of black men between the ages 17 and 35 are either in prison or on probation.3

These statistics attest to the bleak status of black people in American society. However, statistics do not tell the whole tragic story. One phenomenon that has sprouted is the widespread pressure to succeed in athletics as a means of escaping the inner cities. This pressure is applied on kids from an early age. Talent scouts scour the playgrounds of the inner cities looking for the next Michael Jordan. These scouts, who if not looking for basketball players would never set foot in the inner cities, are part of a much bigger picture that exploits the poverty of inner city residents.

The process that channels top basketball players to leading college teams is a very simple and effective one, yet leaves insurmountable damage in its wake. It starts innocently enough on the playgrounds of urban America where unofficial, paid-under-the-table scouts look for talented young kids and report their findings to their clients, the high school coaches. Coaches use various incentives to recruit kids to play for their high schools, such as guaranteed starting positions on the school team, or even scholarships in the case of parochial schools. This system ensures that the best players end up on the best teams. Even talented kids who are missed initially are sure to be discovered by independent scouts eventually. The process intensifies over the next few years as college coaches scavenge the nation, seeking the next college basketball superstar. At summer camps such as Nike Camp, high-school players show off their talent for coaches. Those who perform well at these camps are heavily recruited by the top college programs that are, in turn, feeders to the NBA. Coaches beg the young players to come play for them, bombarding them with letters and phone calls that promise four-year scholarships. This entire process is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which has constructed an elaborate, but meaningless, set of rules regarding athlete recruitment. These rules include a ban on contact between players and coaches at camps such as Nike. Coaches get around this easily by loitering in public areas, where contact with players is unavoidable.4

This system can be seen at work in the documentary film Hoop Dreams. The product of nearly five years of filming, Hoop Dreams chronicles the lives of two high school basketball sensations from Chicago, Arthur Agee and William Gates. Recruited from different parts of Chicago, the two begin high school together at St. Joseph’s High School, the alma mater of NBA superstar Isiah Thomas. The two are separated when Arthur is forced to transfer to a public school due to financial constraints.

Though the young men pursue their basketball careers separately, they share many common experiences of life in the inner city. Arthur’s family is destroyed by his father’s crack addiction. As his family slips into poverty, Arthur disintegrates as well. His performance on the court falters, and his grades in school verge on failure. Although Arthur manages to turn his life around once his family reunites, his adolescence is scarred by an additional experience that is common to far too many people in the inner cities. Arthur becomes a father of two children by different women.

Abandoned by his father at birth, William’s experiences mirror Arthur’s, and he too eventually becomes a father. However, William is determined to be different than his father. He stays with and eventually marries the child’s mother. He takes care of them even as his basketball career takes a nose-dive due to a serious injury.

The film looks at how devastating life is in the inner cities. However, there is much more to the story than two kids trying to make it to the NBA. For example, the film follows William’s older brother, Bo, who is a father as well as a former crack addict. Also portrayed are the boys’ devoted mothers, who cling to dreams of success for their families as they struggle through life. It is quite apparent from the film that dreams of basketball glory are dreams of entire families, and of an entire segment of society, not just of two boys.

The kinds of hoop dreams that William and Arthur shared also have perverse effects on the mentality of inner city kids. When combined with the relentless scouts, the pressure is often too much for any kid to handle. From a very early age, kids observe the fame, popularity, and financial security that comes with being a professional athlete (the average player in the NBA makes more than $2.5 million per year), and they try to emulate their sports heroes.5 Statistics show that they have a better chance of succeeding as a rocket scientist.6 These attitudes and misconceptions are what make kids extremely vulnerable to a process that will inevitably find them living on the same streets from which they came.

Despite these hardships, a perception exists in American society on behalf of both black and white people that black people have been extremely successful in professional athletics. As well, many believe that the dominance of black people in sports today is a result of special black athletic prowess. The fact that black players make up 72% of the players in the NBA and 51% in the NFL seems to support such claims.7 Many mistakenly credit this to some sort of genetic advantage, such as the fact that black people have narrower pelvic girdles than white people.8 This in turn fuels the perception, among both black people and white people, that African-Americans are predisposed to excel in physical pursuits and Caucasians in intellectual. This persisting myth of black athletic prowess works to perpetuate the worst stereotypes and undermines the careers of black professional athletes in general. The reality is that such a great proportion of black kids are attempting to become professional athletes, as compared to relatively few white kids, that blacks clearly dominate professional sports today. This is no small feat. It has been noted that, despite these stereotypes, marginal black players are actually more likely than comparably talented white players to get “weeded out” along the way. The myth of black physical superiority misleads coaches and scouts to evaluate black athletes with higher expectations in mind. Black players therefore need to exhibit a much higher level of skill to impress.9

The idea of black athletic superiority is enforced by the media as well. A recent book called “The Bell Curve”, by Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein argues that black people are intellectually inferior to white people. Murray and Hernstein infer that black people possess great physical aptitude instead, which should be a source of pride.10 Critics of this theory insist that the problem is that the black middle class appears non-existent due to the “parade” of black athletes and criminals on television.

The achievements of great black athletes has led to an overemphasis on sports in the black community. The notion that the road out of the ghetto is paved with sports contracts holds special significance for black people. In recent history, black people have come to view sports as a source of inspiration in the face of racism and segregation. The accomplishments of boxers such as Joe Louis proved that black people could compete against white people – and win. The boxing ring became a replacement for other social areas which black people were excluded from. Other celebrities such as Jackie Robinson had the same effect. Ironically enough, the legacies of these great athletes are a major cause of the current misconceptions held by both black and white people today in American society. Due to an overemphasis on the accomplishments of many great black athletes, too many black kids think they can be the next Jackie Robinson. A recent Sports Illustrated poll showed that 34% of white males and 53% of black males believe black people have become so dominant in sports, that white people can no longer compete at the same level.11 An additional poll showed that 66% of black youths feel that they could succeed as a professional athlete, compared to 20% of white youths.12 Black parents also play a key role in overemphasizing sports as a reasonable career for their children. An recent poll shows that black parents are four times more likely than white parents to believe that their children are destined for careers in professional sports.13

Some commentators suggest that there are positive aspects to the current system of recruiting kids that is in place. They say that it enables some kids to take a “free ride” through an education system that they otherwise could not have afforded. While this may hold true in a limited number of cases, very often black kids on sports scholarships do not get a solid education. Unlike most students, they are in college to play basketball and to make money for the school. This was evident in Hoop Dreams, as Arthur’s living quarters at university were shown. Arthur and the few other black kids at the school had their living quarters completely separate from the rest of the entirely white student body. Arthur and his teammates were not there to get an education; they were there to play basketball, and they knew it.

In America’s inner cities, black youths are pushed and pulled into the world of athletics, most often with disastrous consequences. The fame of superstars such as Michael Jordan, combined with the misperception most black inner city kids have that they can make it as professional athletes, has created a vicious cycle in which 99.99% of kids will end up on the same streets from which they came. So long as black equality, and even black dominance exists in sports, and so long as the bulk of Americans who support these professional sports continue to ignore the ugly reasons behind this situation, the cycle will not end. Nevertheless, many black people will continue to perceive that the only way out of the inner cities is through success in athletics. From the playgrounds to the Final Four, hoop dreams are almost always dashed by hoop realities.

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