Yesterday was Jackie Robinson day around the majors, and today Ken Griffey Jr. discusses in this column why fewer and fewer blacks play baseball. In part, he blames the media for focusing too much on Barry Bonds instead of positive black role models in the game.
Maybe that has something do with it, but Torii Hunter brings more insight to the discussion on this week's HBO Real Sports. In an interview with Bryant Gumbel, Hunter says baseball is a game passed from fathers to sons, but today two-thirds of African-American children are born without fathers. You can shoot a basket by yourself, but you can't play catch with yourself. (Griffey illustrates Hunter's point. Talking about his baseball experience, as he tells a story about ... his dad.)
Hunter's point is well taken, but a perhaps more important factor is buried in another story on Real Sports. Gumbel also interviewed Barack Obama about his love of basketball. Obama, who grew up with a white mother and lived among few blacks in places like Hawaii, says at one point that part of his interest in the game as a boy was identifying with black culture.
I do not think Obama is unique in this regard. Today, group identity -- race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever -- is defined by beliefs and actions, instead of just being, as if it were a political statement that must extend into nearly every life choice, from food to art to education -- even the sport you play.
High school kids aren't explicitly thinking in those terms, of course. But the superior value of group identification has been ingrained in big ways and in small ways, and it all amounts to the same thing -- fall in line or you're not "real" enough. Thus, because he didn't take the traditional black path to power, Obama isn't black enough. Because he is a Republican, Lynn Swann is an Uncle Tom. Because basketball is the black man's game, you better play it. Group identification begets group think.
That's not the sum of it; Hunter's point, socio-economic factors, baseball's failure to market itself, etc. are all in the soup too. But I think group identification might be at the heart of it.