Survey shows split on racial opportunity

Updated: January 11, 2011, 4:32 PM ET
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

Twenty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was first honored with a national holiday and nearly 50 years after the civil rights leader's "I Have a Dream" speech, black and white sports fans alike view the sports world as far more racially progressive and unifying than the rest of society, according to a recent online survey conducted for ESPN.

However, there remains a strong racial divide among those fans about the extent to which African-Americans enjoy equal opportunities in sports, as well as about the degrees of prejudice and discrimination that continue to pervade the sports landscape.

Eighty-two percent of those surveyed believe that sports provide equal opportunities for African-Americans, compared with 55 percent who think the same is true in all other sectors of society. Of those surveyed, 73 percent give a very high rating to the sports world in terms of equal opportunities, in contrast to only 19 percent who give a very high rating to the corporate world.

As well, 72 percent believe sports do more to unite people across racial lines, while only 6 percent think sports do more to divide race relations.

However, African-Americans surveyed are less convinced than whites about the extent of the progress in the sports world. Only 36 percent of blacks -- compared with 65 percent of whites -- give sports high marks on the question of whether African-Americans have equal opportunities to succeed.

Most African-Americans surveyed say blacks have fewer opportunities than whites to become owners of professional sports franchises (71 percent); athletic directors at major, Division I universities (72 percent); major league baseball managers (64 percent); NFL head coaches (62 percent); or head coaches at major Division I schools (58 percent). A majority of white sports fans believe African-Americans have equal opportunities.

Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan is the only black majority owner in the four major professional sports, according to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. Jordan bought the team from another African-American, Robert Johnson, and those two constitute the only black majority owners in the history of the four major sports.

Nevertheless, only 47 percent of white sports fans surveyed think blacks have fewer opportunities to be owners, and 44 percent believe that blacks have the same opportunities.

The online survey of 1,822 sports fans (1,213 whites, 435 African-Americans) was conducted Dec. 15-Dec. 21 by Hart Research Associates.

An ESPN survey of coaching salaries by race indicates disparities remain. At the start of the 2010 NFL season, six out of 32 coaches were black, and the average annual salary for those coaches was $3.1 million, compared with $4.1 million for white coaches. Of the 120 major Division I college football programs, there were only 14 black coaches (and one Hispanic coach) at the start of this past season; the average annual salary for those African-American coaches was $1 million, while white coaches averaged $1.4 million.

The surveyed fans also were somewhat divided on their views about the need for the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires consideration of minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations positions. Of black fans polled, 57 percent believe the rule will be needed for years to come, compared with only 20 percent of white fans. Twenty-three percent of white fans indicate the rule was never needed in the first place, while only 7 percent of African-Americans feel it is unnecessary.

In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King holiday, ESPN also surveyed 100 African-American athletes about their views of the black athlete in 2010. The athletes were promised anonymity to encourage freer responses to a series of 10 questions.

"Wow, it's an honor to take this survey," said one NFL Pro Bowl player. "MLK had a huge impact on me as a kid -- even though I was born a few years after he died. That's legacy, man."

Jordan What sets Jordan apart is he's done so much more than basketball. Even the whole baseball attempt was inspiring to me. I remember thinking, 'He's the best basketball player ever, and he's walking away to try baseball just because he wants to test himself? Maybe I need to think more like that.'

-- MLB player on Michael Jordan

Asked to name the retired black athlete they could most imagine being president in 2024, the athletes' top choice was Michael Jordan, garnering 17.5 percent of votes.

"What sets Jordan apart is he's done so much more than basketball," said an MLB player. "Even the whole baseball attempt was inspiring to me. I remember thinking, 'He's the best basketball player ever, and he's walking away to try basketball just because he wants to test himself? Maybe I need to think more like that.'"

The NBA swept the top five among potential presidents, with Jordan followed by current Laker Derek Fisher and former Laker Magic Johnson (each at 12.4 percent); former Phoenix Suns great Kevin Johnson (6.2), now the mayor of Sacramento; and former Spurs superstar David Robinson (5.2).

Jackie Robinson (62.5 percent) was the top vote-getter when the athletes were asked to name the most important black athlete ever, followed by Muhammad Ali (57.3) and Jordan (54.2).

The athletes surveyed resoundingly (81 percent) believe African-American athletes need to take a more active role in the black community.

"You need more black athletes doing more positive things," said a world champion boxer. "A lot of people in the ghetto, in poor neighborhoods like where I grew up, don't believe there's life outside of the city, outside what they know. We need to be in there showing them, telling them, that there is."

Asked to identify who was the most color-blind among fans, coaches, owners and media, more than half the athletes (53.4 percent) selected coaches, followed by fans (21.8), owners (14.4) and media (10.4).

"When it's all said and done, the color that counts the most is green," said one NFL linebacker.

The athletes' answers reflected a level of suspicion regarding the media. When asked to rank five athletes by how the media treated them (1 being the kindest; 5 being the worst), the survey revealed the African-American athletes believe Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (1.6) was handled with kid gloves compared with Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (4.8). Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman, and he ultimately was given a four-game suspension by the NFL although no charges were filed against him. Vick served 21 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring.

Other players named in the question were pitching great Roger Clemens (2.3), who faces charges of lying before Congress when he denied steroid use; NFL wide receiver Plaxico Burress (3.5), who is currently serving a two-year prison sentence stemming from gun charges after he accidentally shot himself at a New York nightclub; and seven-time National League Most Valuable Player Barry Bonds (3.6), who is set to stand trial in March on perjury charges related to his grand jury testimony in the BALCO steroids case.

Vick All of those guys got raked pretty bad. But what happened to Vick wasn't right, especially compared with how the other guys on that list were treated.

-- Champion boxer on Michael Vick

"All of those guys got raked pretty bad," said a champion boxer. "But what happened to Vick wasn't right, especially compared with how the other guys on that list were treated."

African-American sports fans who took part in the online survey also indicated the media had been biased in its treatment of black athletes. By a margin of 57 percent to 7 percent, the African-Americans surveyed say the media unfairly criticizes black athletes more than white athletes, while the white fans suggest there is no difference in the media's handling of various cases.

Of black sports fans surveyed, 65 percent say they admire Vick, compared with just 25 percent of the white fans. Black fans surveyed actually also seem more forgiving of Roethlisberger, with 30 percent expressing admiration, compared with just 22 percent of white fans. Asked for their views on 17 different sports figures -- from NFL quarterback Tom Brady to race car driver Danica Patrick, from golfer Tiger Woods to NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens -- fans overwhelmingly name Jordan as the figure they most admire (67 percent). Owens is last (18 percent), although 35 percent of black fans surveyed say they admired him, compared with just 14 percent of whites.

Provided a list of seven facts about African-Americans in sports today, sports fans of both races say they are most concerned that the graduation rate for black student-athletes is 53 percent compared with 63 percent for white student-athletes. The fan survey also touched upon the often-taboo notion of whether African-Americans are athletically superior to whites. Across the board, blacks and whites indicate they believe blacks are superior runners, have greater jumping and leaping ability, and possess more natural athletic ability than whites. In fact, 66 percent of the African-American fans surveyed associate fast runners more with black athletes than white, and 61 percent associate natural athletic ability more with blacks than whites. A very small percentage of blacks and whites associate superior athletic ability with white athletes.

The NFL is far and away the most popular sport among all fans surveyed, with Major League Baseball a distant second, followed by college football. Among black fans specifically, the NBA ranks second, followed by college football, college basketball and then MLB. Asked to rank a series of breakthrough sports moments involving African-Americans, black fans view as most significant Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith being the first African-American head coaches to reach the Super Bowl, with Dungy being the first black coach to win the title. Ranking second among blacks is Serena Williams becoming the first African-American woman to win a career grand slam in tennis. Overall, the black and white fans surveyed view Jordan becoming the first former NBA player to become the majority owner of an NBA franchise as the sports event that demonstrates the most progress in achieving King's dream of a society that provides equal opportunities for all races.

More than twice as many of the surveyed fans (32 percent to 13 percent) say the dream has been reached in sports compared with those who say it has been reached by the country as a whole. Again, though, black fans are far less convinced than whites: Regarding society in general, just 6 percent of African-Americans believe the country has fulfilled the dream, compared with 15 percent of whites; and in sports, 14 percent of the black fans indicate equality has been achieved, while 37 percent of whites think the dream has been realized.

Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter with ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.