Tackling the Challenges of Breaking Into the Sports World

WASHINGTON — There has been plenty of hand-wringing over and column inches devoted to the ever-shrinking percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball in recent history. But as much as the issue is discussed each year, the numbers haven’t gotten any better. More quietly, the opportunity for careers beyond the playing field, particularly in the front office, have arguably gotten even worse.

MLB has only two black field managers — the Nationals’ Dusty Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts. It has just one black general manager with former All-Star pitcher Dave Stewart of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That’s where the Diversity in Sports Forum — part of the week of programming leading into the annual Nation’s Football Classic game between Howard and Hampton universities — hopes to make a difference. The event starts 8 a.m. Friday at the Mayflower Hotel and includes panels featuring top executives from around the sports world, as well as a career fair featuring companies like Under Armour and teams like the Baltimore Ravens.

“The game has become very much a corporation, and it’s got a corporate-run attitude,” ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant, who will be a moderator at the forum, told WTOP. “Instead of having players graduate from the minors to the big leagues to coaching to the front office, now the front office is being dominated by Ivy Leaguers. You have to have advanced degrees, and you’ve got to have advanced degrees from very prestigious universities.”

Although African-Americans make up roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population, Columbia University was the only Ivy League institution with black students comprising greater than 10 percent of enrollment in 2015, with Cornell bringing up the rear at just 4.5 percent.

“If it’s not completely closed off, that pipeline has turned into a straw,” Bryant said. “It’s not anywhere near something I think you could count on if you have really ambitious goals. If your goal is to get a job in baseball, it could work. If your job is to run a team, that isn’t happening.”

One of the few black executives to advance up the front office ladder, from intern all the way to player development director, is Tyrone Brooks. A Maryland graduate, Brooks was one of the highest-ranking African-American executives in the game when he was hired away from the Pittsburgh Pirates by the league office for the specific purpose of heading up MLB’s new Front Office and Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program. He will be one of the speakers on the “View from the Top” panel, moderated by Bryant.

For its part, MLB has tried to promote the game in areas in which it has declined through initiatives like the RBI program: Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. Some clubs, like the Nationals, have opened their own youth academies. But while these institutions may help teach the game and provide structured sports environments where they were previously lacking, Bryant doesn’t believe they are the answer to the game’s growing racial divide.

“I never liked it, because I always felt that anything that comes out of a community relations budget is far more of a showpiece than anything that comes out of scouting and development,” he said. “I think there may be opportunities from RBI, but I don’t know how much those opportunities are going to translate into being on the field.”

The solution isn’t simple. But from his own experience, Bryant says it starts with the simple thought that seeing is believing.

“The first thing is that it’s really important — at least it was really important for me — to see people who look like me see what I wanted to do,” he said. “You are looking at the people that, in a lot of ways, are at the top of their profession. If you want to find out how they got that way, and to find out what you’re facing, and to take an interest in what is going to be your future, I think it’s a great opportunity to hear what people have to say.”

Students interested in attending the forum can purchase tickets online for $45, which includes breakfast, entry to the career fair, and a ticket to the Nation’s Football Classic Saturday at RFK Stadium.

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