Today is the day that the annual report from Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida comes out. He’s been doing this for years, and it always gets highlighted in the media, with headlines about how the number of U.S.-born black players in baseball is declining. Which, yes, it is. But Lapchick’s report is also normally treated wholly uncritically, with his conclusions being parroted instead of reported, and it really grinds my gears.
It bugs me on a broad level, in that — as I’ve mentioned in this space several times — it looks at the trees but not the forest, noting that while, yes, there are fewer U.S.-born black players in baseball now than there used to, the overall diversity of baseball is up as the game becomes increasingly internationalized.
But it bugs me in a much sharper sense in that I believe the numbers Lapchick puts out are misleading.
They are misleading in that, while his current count of U.S.-born blacks in baseball seems right — he has it at 8.5% — the numbers he and others typically cite for the height of black representation in the game are usually off. He has cited as high as 27% of all players being black, and this number is often repeated as gospel, like it is in today’s USA Today story about it.
Thing is: these are apples and oranges measurements. Back in the 70s when that 27% number came out, those numbers represented counts of all black players — or people who had sufficiently-black skin to be called “black” according to the view of those doing the counting. This included Latino players like Rico Carty, who happened to be born in the Dominican Republic. Today Carty — or, say, Aroldis Chapman or any other non-U.S.-born black player — wouldn’t be included in Lapchick’s count. Which makes sense because he’s counting only U.S.-born blacks. But he and his media surrogates freely cite the old numbers which did include Latino blacks back in the day.
Friend of mine and frequent HBT commenter Mark Armour is doing some research on this for the Society of American Baseball Research. I’ve not seen the research, but Tyler Kepner notes it in the New York Times today. Armour estimates that the actual height of U.S.-born blacks in the game came in the 1980s and peaked at 19%. See the update below for some of Mark’s additional comments on this.
No, that research does not mean that all things are wonderful. There clearly are fewer U.S.-born black players in baseball today than there were in decades past. But it’s not quite a crisis on the order of magnitude that Lapchick and others portray. And given that they’re not being particularly discerning with their numbers you have to wonder if either sloppiness or agenda-setting is taking precedence over science here.
And that’s my problem with it. Not the underlying idea — I want there to be more blacks in the game; heck, I want EVERYONE to play baseball and anything that can be done to promote it should be – but on the manner in which the problem is portrayed. A manner which seems more calculated to draw attention to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports than it does to the underlying issue.
UPDATE: Mark Armour chimed in in the comments:
I am not exactly sure where the 27% number came from. My theory had been that the old data was from some newpaper story that counted all dark-skinned players as black, while the new data only counted US black players. However, several years ago this was explored further by the Wall Street Journal, and they determined that the old data is just … bad science. Really bad science.
The real drop in African-Americans (from 17-19% in the 1975-95 period) to half that today is significant enough without the bad data. Baseball is MORE diverse, of course, than every before.
By the way, MLB is very cooperative in the Lapchick study. In fact, they provide all of the data on opening day rosters to Lapchick every year. The writers that imply this is some sort of bigotry on the part of MLB are nuts. It is very clear that MLB is spending lots of time and money on this problem.