Sport is a part of the fabric of American society. As a result, sports affect various aspects of the social, cultural, and economic environment in the United States (Hughs 2004). Historically, athletics has been a male-dominated arena laden with ideologies which bolster traditional displays of gender performance. Although gender norms are changing (Anderson 2014), given the history of race, gender, and ability in the United States it is important to study the intersection of identity and the institution of sports. The case of Black male youth athletes helps to uncover the nuances in this sector of American society. While the institution of sports interacts with other entities in society, like institutions of higher education and the economy, scholars should be increasingly attentive to how racial identity and sports interface within society. Because sports, and subsequently those who play them, are situated in a larger social context it is important to consider the complexity of identity in the realm of athletics.
Previous literature (Brustad, Babkes, and Smith 2001) has unevenly placed much of the attention on intrinsic motivations for sports participation and less emphasis on the outside factors that lead individuals to join. The psychological consequences (for example, the pressure to compete) and the physiological (injuries, for example) of participation in sports often gain significant popular and academic attention (Anderson and White 2010; White and Robinson 2016). The structural and institutional implications of joining sports, however, are less understood in the literature. At the professional and collegiate level, for example, the rationale for participation varies, potentially, relative to the motivations of individuals in their youth who, arguably, have fewer tangible incentives for participating. The differences between individual motivations to join sports could be even greater when we consider the case of Black male youth.
Classical Theories and Research on Youth’s Motivation in Sports
There are various internal and external explanations for why children participate in sports in their adolescence. Many of the contemporary theories of motivation to participate in sports incorporate competence motivation theory or achievement goal theory (Brustad et al. 2001). These theories offer insight into how individual characteristics and values translate into involvement. Competence motivation theory, for example, emphasizes the importance of an individual’s feelings regarding ability and skill. Youth who view themselves as capable of succeeding in sports, join because of internal confidence in their ability to perform. Others, according to achievement goal oriented theory, join sports for the joy of winning (Brustad et al. 2001).
Sports are an opportunity to work towards both immediate and long-term goals and achievement. Participants’ attraction to an environment of competition is fueled by the gratification that comes from formal and informal matches in which individual and team skills, ability, prowess, and perseverance are up against those of the specific opponents (Brustad and Smith 2001). These theories undergird individual-level motivations for joining sports teams and activities. Internal perceptions of capabilities and satisfaction, however, do not develop completely in isolation from the social environment. Interactions with others deeply shape one’s presentation of self and, congruently, the decisions that an individual makes. In fact, presentations of self are often developed when people are comparing themselves to others (Cooley 1902). Sports, therefore, can serve as an avenue to present and negotiate one’s self in order to accomplish various social outcomes.
While internal motivations to join sports appear to be an individual-level event or process, the complexities of identity, mainly race and gender, influence how individuals develop personal desires and volition. Competence motivation theory and achievement goal theory do not allow for nuance that is added by considerations of identity and the manner in which members of various racial and gender groups receive, perceive, and interpret information regarding sports and ability.
Historically, gender politics and gender performance have been tightly linked to adolescent and adult sports participation (Connell 1996; Holland and Andre 1994; Swain 2003). Presently, in a society in which there is an increasing acceptance of diverse displays of gender and sexuality and recognition of the increasing fluidity of gender (Anderson 2009), athleticism continues to provide a pathway through which young males can maintain traditional gender norms. In many settings, athletic ability and participation in male-dominated sports (such as football and basketball) is associated with masculinity (Shakib et al. 2011). For example, females and males who participate in sports are more likely to be perceived as aggressive, a traditionally masculine trait (Connell 1996; Swain 2003). Participation in sports is a legitimation tool since athleticism is often equated with other conventional displays linked to manhood such as strength and agility. The physical embodiment or display of these kinds of attributes has significant social benefits for youth.
Jon Swain (2003) argues that participation in sports offers young boys leverage among members of their peer groups. In fact, the more athletic, the greater popularity males have among their peers (Holland and Andre 1994; Shakib et al. 2011). Joining a sports team or organized sport, therefore, allows for social passage and acceptance relative to dominant gender practices. Schools play a role in socializing young men to assume traditional gender roles and facilitate hyper-masculine displays of gender (Connell 1996; White and Hobson 2015. What is meant by hyper-masculine is an extreme embodiment or presentation of traditional (and often stereotypical) gender roles. Male youths’ use of athleticism and physical embodiment of strength, skill, and speed are key avenues to social acceptance and status, particularly in the context of schools. The need to assert masculinity for male youth, therefore, becomes a motivation to join sports.
In addition to sports as a tool for legitimacy, participation in sports has larger implications for status and popularity particularly in school settings (Shakib et al. 2011). Some youths’ motivation to join sports, therefore, is a function of the social benefits, mainly status and popularity that accompany sports activity. Alyce Holland and Thomas Andre (1994) and Sohailer Shakib et al. (2011) have found that popularity and participation in sports activities are correlated with one another. Moreover, the relationship between popularity, acceptance, and sports are associated with the gender appropriateness of the sport (Holland and Andre 1994; Shakib et al. 2011). Males who participate in gender-appropriate sports activities (such as football, wrestling, basketball, and baseball) are more desirable in terms of friendship and dating. Unlike young girls who can rely on other activities to influence popularity, male youth status is often tightly intertwined with athleticism. The relationship among sports, popularity, and status is most prominent in middle school where identity is developing (Shakib et al. 2011). This means that for some sports participation is largely shaped by the negotiation between how young males are perceived by their peers and, in turn, how they perceive themselves in relation to others. Young male students who need to communicate manhood and accomplish acceptance among peers involvement in sports is one avenue. Race and gender, however, influence if and how sports participation is perceived and whether sports are viable pathways to status and popularity (Shakib et al. 2011). Black male youth who participate in sports report lower levels of self-reported popularity (Shakib et al. 2011). Differences in how racial groups obtain and assert status and popularity evidence the complexity that identity adds to the institution of sports and how individuals become involved.
Parents (and other adult or authority figures) are significant to the discussion of the participation of children and youth in sports. Scholars (Blau and Duncan 1967; Hout 2015; Sewell et al. 1969) suggest that there is a relationship among parents’ education, socio-economic background, occupational attainment and occupational prestige, and the life outcomes of children.
According to the work of Annette Lareau (2003), middle-class parents regardless of racial background actively engage in the concerted cultivation of their middle-class children. Middle-class parents purposively transmit their class position to their offspring in the form of cultural resources and opportunities (such as knowledge and skills). One of the avenues to accomplish this is through children’s involvement in extra-curricular activities (like sports, music, and the arts). While individual-level characteristics (physical ability, personality traits) and wants are often emphasized to understand why people do the things they do, contact with others is useful to understanding motivation. Parents’ direct relationship to youth is a significant component of motivation for youths’ participation in sports.
While class-specific perceptions of extracurricular activities and their role on children’s development inform parents’ decisions to involve their children in sports, sports involvement often serves a different purpose for minority children and families. Because Black children and other children of color are more likely to live in or in close proximity to disadvantaged neighborhoods (Harris 1997; Rendon 2014), sports can provide social and physical barriers for children in these communities. Male youth, particularly those in urban neighborhoods, are often exposed to social stressors, such as gang violence. Unstructured free time is often consequential for children in urban settings (Rendón 2014). Rendon (2014) argues that some families in urban neighborhoods rely on extracurricular activities, mainly sports, to keep youth occupied, out of trouble and in school. How families in urban communities use sports highlights the role social and environmental context plays in decision to join sports and how minorities and at-risk youth supports become engaged in sports differently.
Black Men and Boys Participation in Sports
The intersection of race and sports has historical and contemporary relevance in the US context (Hartmann 2003). In contrast with other social institutions, like education and employment that continue to struggle with inequality, Black people are overrepresented relative to their White counterparts in the arena of sports. Men of color and Black men, in particular, represent a significant majority in revenue-generating sports like basketball and football (Harper et al. 2013; Hughs 2004). The overwhelming representation of Black men in professional and collegiate basketball and football programs are stark evidence of a racial pattern steeped in a larger racial context.
Although Black male representation in sports is worth acknowledging, the fact that there are relatively few Black people or people of color who own sports teams also deserves attention. Scholars (Hawkins 2010; Hughs 2004; Satterfield and Croft 2015) argue that athletic programs are modern day slave plantations where Black bodies are used to profit a capitalistic system and structure (teams, team owners, colleges, and so on). This is to say that much like slavery, institutional actors within the sports arena benefit from the labor of Black male athletes. According to Hughs (2004), there is some validity to this argument about the exploitation of Black athletes in the industry. Hughs (2004) argues the burgeoning devaluation of the Black athlete (for example, the freedom to present himself) is impacted by the racial perception of white sports consumers. From this perspective, the experience of Black people in sports is shaped broadly by racial relations and ideologies, further lending pause to how the relationship between Black youth and sports begins and how formalized institutions are driving these motivations.
In a society in which the financial successes of professional athletes are extremely visible, the framing of sports as an opportunity for mobility is pervasive in US society (Harris 1997; Hughs 2004). The social and economic benefits that accompany participation in sports permeate media avenues, like television and social media, inundating consumers with hegemonic social ideologies about success, achievement and power (Hartmann 2003; Shakib et al. 2001). Because Black men are overrepresented in the most publicized sports, like basketball, football, and even baseball, this increases the opportunity to observe Black males and their relationship to sports. This ideology is rooted in the notion that sports are a way out of less favorable conditions and a way to celebrity, riches, prestige, and privilege. This perception is not entirely implausible since Blacks disproportionately experience the sting of low wages, underemployment, and joblessness (Wilson 2012), lower educational attainment, and greater risk of incarceration (Rendón 2014). Those who do achieve in athletics, however, are highly visible to both minorities and non-minorities and, as a result, are frequently treated as exemplary. This rhetoric surrounding Black men, sports, and social mobility may influence the aspirations and motivations of Black male youth while detracting from other social problems affecting Black communities. There is a long-standing reputation of this line of thought, particularly in disadvantaged communities (Harris 1997). Even so, other broad explanations for participation in sports remain of great importance.
Building a Case for an Institutional Perspective on Black Male Youth’s Participation in Sports
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a useful theoretical framework for studying the relationship between race and motivations to join sports. CRT allows scholars who study sports to explore the relationship between race and racial discourse and dominant ideologies and structures in society (Hylton 2005). The institution of sports, similar to other social institutions, is influenced by key social actors that maintain the status quo. Moreover, because the institutions of sports are influenced by larger social, cultural, and structural forces, CRT enables the critique of racialized systems and the influence of racial discourse on the motivations of Black male youth to participate in sports. Racism and racial discourses often motivate institutional actors to engage those perceived as socially inferior and in need of intervention through racial projects. Michael Omni and Howard Winant (1986) describe racial projects as “an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and means, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular race lines” (125). In the context of schools, this could suggest that educational institutions are engaging social ideologies and understandings and even stereotyping about Black male youth to inform how they engage students. Schools use sports and the accompanied benefits of that structure to transmit social and cultural resources (like cultural capital). Schools and various institutional actors lead what Omni and Winant call “local level” projects that influence and are influenced by “global level” (125) projects. Schools use the rhetoric of race and athletics to develop young Black children into civil citizens. Schools funnel Black male youths into organized sports to instill in them cultural resources relevant in dominant society such as acceptable character traits and ideas like teamwork, comradery, respect for one another, perseverance, and achievement (Hartmann 2003).
According to Douglas Hartmann (2001), athletic programs targeted at improving social problems are not a new phenomenon. In fact, organizations such as the Parks & Recreation Centers, Boys & Girls Program, and the YMCA are historical stakeholders involved in this kind of work. Individuals who participate in this type of intervention are disproportionately youth of color and children from low-income backgrounds suggesting that there is some special attention being paid to these populations and a desire to determine solutions to social problems.
In essence, these types of programs have, arguably, expressed interest in their success because positive results mean improving the well-being of society. Athletic programming and organized sports were used by local and federal government as risk-management, public-safety, and violence-prevention strategies. The target of these programs, however, is intended, exclusively, to address issues related to youth and men of color in impoverished communities. Hartmann (2001) argues that “American educational institutions have long justified interscholastic athletic competition and physical education itself as a means of cultivating school spirit, building character and self-discipline among youth and adolescents students, and preventing criminal and delinquent behaviors” (340).
There is evidence that schools and other social institutions have attempted to use schooling and sports to circumvent challenges with the behavior of Black male youths, their performance, and their risk of participation in criminal activity. In other words, Black males’ participation in sports is racial projects for schools (Omni and Winant 1986). Hughs (2004) argues that a similar process is occurring at the professional level in, mainly, the National Basketball League (NBA).
Hughs (2004) posits that “[t]he NBA presents and thinks of itself as a kind of solution to racial discord and to the problem of Black disenfranchisement in particular” (180). This profoundly exemplifies the ways in which schools and other sports organizations are approaching Black males as a problem while still employing their bodies. Beyond the fact that sports participation is seen as an opportunity to get at-risk youth involved in organized programs (Hartmann 2001), scholars have begun to critique these programs for having deeper motives that aim to challenge the core being of black male youth. In fact, some athletic programs were created, arguably, to develop the character of this population specifically as dignified citizens and contributors to society (Hartmann 2001). This is a very culture-specific approach to inequality and social problems. The source of the issues plaguing the Black community are viewed as issues related to cultural behaviors and practices and not about structural constraints of opportunity. Hartmann (2001) argues that sport intervention programs in particular communities began to serve as strategies for cleaning up the bad, wrong, problematic, violent, and unruly. Endeavoring to change the culture and character of a particular population is the very nature of “racial projects” and evidence that the racial nature of Black people’s interactions with institutions persist.
While Black men and other minorities have better access to social institutions, their degree of access and participation is regulated by aspects of their social position. In addition to ability, skill and competency, attributes such as cultural background and character influence Black men’s interactions with social institutions (Hughs 2004). Various sports institutions, like the NBA, are actively engaging in monitoring and regulating public perceptions of Black athletes. Allen Iverson, a young Black male who played professionally in the NBA provides evidence for how institutions evaluate or regulate Black men’s presentation of self. Although Iverson’s team benefited from his physical ability and athletic exceptionalism on the court, there was a negative response to how he presented himself, especially in regard to his attire. In fact, policies were enacted mandating that players’ wardrobes fit a certain mold. Thus, appropriate game day attire in the NBA was in response to Iverson’s presentation of self which did not reflect dominant ideologies about professionalism (Cunningham 2009). While Iverson serves as just one example of how institutions aim to alter the presentation of Black males, this case evidences the extent to which dominant (or public) perceptions of Black men determines Black males’ experiences within sports programs and decisions to join even in their youth.
Conclusion, Implications, and Recommendations
Youths’ participation in sports is driven by diverse forces such as the influence of others (like parents and peers) and internal characteristics and drivers. Emphasis on the motivation of Black male youth in the US, point to an underexplored gap in the literature—specific discussion of the motivations of Black male adolescents to join sports early in the life course. We argue that consideration of the social, cultural and structural reality shaping the social position of Black men adds nuance to Black male youths’ decisions to participate in sports. Their racial identity exposes them to structural and cultural forces that shape their everyday lives. Sports and athletic programming are merely sites in which to observe the socio-cultural forces acting upon Black male youth. Institutions endeavor to construct the roles and life outcomes of young Black adolescents and therefore their contact and experiences with sports is situated in a larger racialized social world.
Much like other institutions that maintain dominant ideologies about race, class, and gender, sports institutions and organizations are engaging in strategies of social control or racial projects (Omni and Winant 1986). In a society with rampant ideologies and stereotypes about the character, behavior, and promise of Black male youth, schools are directly engaged in their socialization. Sports facilitate this process. The interactions between educational institutions, Black male youth and their participation in athletics reveal the propensity of institutions to influence social perceptions and responses to members of particular social groups. Even so, in practice, schools and school actors attempt to fix Black male youth, using athletic participation.
While Black male youths may have intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for joining organized sports programs, the institutional roles of schools and their investment in these young people as racial projects is a significant addition to knowledge of the mechanisms driving sports participation. Future research should explore the extent to which these processes occur and how youth respond to institutional pressures to participate in sports. More pointedly, future research should explore the institutional culture of schools that Black male youth attend and how interactions between school actors and students drive some students to participate in sports. Research also should explore why some Black males choose not to participate in sports in order to better understand the motivations of those who do. Patterns surrounding individual characteristics (like socio-economic background) and institutional characteristics (such as school, racial and socio-economic composition) could emerge to tell a greater story of Black males’ involvement in sports activities.
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