It is always difficult to bring up the topic of race and sports without people of all colors and persuasions getting upset and defensive. Many people have been chastised, castigated, and driven out of their profession for even bring up the issue of race and sports. So, let me preface this article by stating out flatly that by no means is this article meant to accuse Lorenzo Romar or anyone associated with his staff of having any inherent bias toward black players or against white players. In fact, it is quite the opposite in my opinion.
The fact that Romar has brought on several white players during his tenure, both on scholarship and as walk-ons, illustrates that point. In addition, a man of such high moral character and faith has clearly demonstrated through his actions that race has nothing to do with his decisions in terms of who to bring into his program. That being said, it’s been a while since a white player has played for the Huskies under scholarship, hasn’t it?
Why is that?
That question is as much rhetorical as it is literal. I don’t know exactly, but even in a sport so heavily dominated by African-Americans, it does seem a bit odd that so few Caucasian players have come to Montlake in recent years, when there are many other programs around the country that have been very successful with a number of white players on their roster.
So, you have to start with the premise that there simply are not that many white players capable of starting at the Division I level and so the number on your roster is bound to be relatively low to start with. For instance, while American-born white players totaled 25% of NBA rosters in the 1990’s, it is down to just 10% today. At the college level 30.5% of all Division I basketball players were white in 2010.
But, examining the history of the Washington Huskies, the percentage of white players is well below that mark. The last white basketball players for the Huskies were Jon Brockman, Artem Wallace, and Joe Wolfinger who all graduated in 2009. Since those three left, there has not been a single white player on scholarship on the roster in the last three seasons. And, while recruiting is always unpredictable, it doesn’t look like that trend will change in the near future. When you look at the players signed or being talked about for the 2012 recruiting class, none of them are white. When you see the list of potential recruits being discussed for the 2013 recruiting class, none of them are white.
Prior to 2009, the Huskies have had a few other white players recruited in Romar’s tenure including Spencer Hawes, Phil Nelson, Hans Gasser, and Ryan Appleby who transferred in from Florida. The one thing that stands out about all of these players is that all of them were local talent, with Brockman, Hawes, Wallace, Gasser, and Appleby being from Western Washington and Nelson and Wolfinger from the Portland area.
When you take a look at the total number of scholarship players Romar has signed since he started at Washington, the numbers are pretty amazing. The last white player to be brought on scholarship was Spencer Hawes way back in 2006. Since then, the Huskies have signed 22 consecutive non-white players. In total, Romar has signed a total of 41 players in his 10 years at the helm (37 actually made it to campus) plus three more who signed with Bob Bender and arrived on campus at the same time Romar did. Romar has also brought in three transfers. Of the 41 LOI signees, a total of six were white players for a total of 14.6% of the players. Of the 6 other players, one (Appleby) was white.
So, is there anything wrong with this?
Probably not. I mean, as a coach your job is to find the best available players. You want players who will fit your system. And, let’s be honest, many of the white players he brought in didn’t exactly pan out. Wolfinger and Gasser were clearly not good fits for Romar’s system. Nelson left the team before we got to know him. Many will argue that Hawes held the team back, while others will say he could have been a monster had he been healthy and stayed on another year. Ryan Appleby’s career was mixed with some nice moments and some disappointments. But, the only one who really stands out is Jon Brockman, who finished as the Huskies’ #1 career rebounding leader and #2 all-time scorer. Why his #40 jersey is not yet hanging from the rafters of Hec Ed, I don’t know…
It’s one thing to notice a statistical anomaly, it is quite another to assign causation. Since the Division I average is 30.5%, it isn’t as if there are not competent white players available. In addition, it isn’t as if there are not any playing for the major powerhouses either. Duke, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Notre Dame, BYU, and many others have been winning lots of games over the past few years with quite a few white players in prominent starting roles.
So, perhaps it is something else. If I had to guess, it would be “where” Romar recruits. It would be based on the socio-economic backgrounds of the players he recruits and which players feel comfortable and at ease with him as a coach and person. There was an interesting study that came out that looked at where the white players who do play major college basketball come from. The vast majority of them come from smaller, more rural communities, where the percentage of people in that community are very white. Very few white players come from major urban areas with a high minority population, even if the total number of whites is also high.
SI did a survey a couple of years back in which they examined why the number of white basketball players has been going down in recent years and their conclusion is that white players are often made to feel that they will not have a good opportunity to succeed in basketball from an early age in urban environments with large minority populations and are encouraged to take their athletic talents to other sports instead.
Perhaps players from mostly white rural areas are more encouraged to continue in basketball than a young white kid in the inner city. I grew up in Tacoma and when I was in high school, our varsity team consisted of 12 black players and no white players. Our JV team was 11 black players and 1 white kid. I played on the freshman team (one of 4 white players of our 12) and then realized I had no real shot to make varsity (mostly because I was short and couldn’t jump, despite my deadly 3-point shot) and shifted my full time focus to soccer where I was a 4 year varsity letter-man. As it turns out, our soccer team only had one black player on the roster, but several Asians. So, perhaps it is just a cultural thing.
Maybe, given Romar’s background, he just “fits in” better recruiting in more urban environments and thus by extension is less likely to come across white talent and more likely to see top-notch black players. But, other coaches at other universities, by virtue of their background and experience might just be more focused and comfortable going into those small rural towns in Iowa or even places like Medford, Ore (the Singler’s) and Clarkston, WA (Heydvelt) to recruit.
Whatever the reasons, this article isn’t to say whether it is good or bad that Romar’s recruitment rate of white players is below the national average. It is just an observation and an invitation to people to offer their thoughts on the issue. Like most of you, as far as I am concerned, if my alma mater wins basketball games, I am happy. The color of their skin or their socioeconomic background does not really matter to me. What I want FROM them is wins and what I want FOR them is to get a good education at one of the best academic institutions in the country. And, from that standpoint, I think you can consider Lorenzo Romar successful in those endeavors.
Some side notes from my research for this article:
- A study of officiating over 13 seasons showed slight variances in calls according to race. White officials call more fouls on black players and black officials call more foul calls on white players, at a rate of up to 4.5% more often than average.
- The whitest team in the NBA currently is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have 5 white players. No other team has more than three. Four teams have none.
- Foreign born players now account for 18.6% of the NBA. Many are white from Europe, Australia, and Argentina (most of Argentina is of Italian and Spanish decent). I lived in Italy for four years and there is a strong basketball culture there. There are some real ballers.
- The gap in the graduation rate between white and black basketball players has hit an all-time high of 32%. 91% of all white Division I basketball players graduate, compared to 59% of black players. But, before you get all in a hizzy about that, recognize that only 53% of ALL college students graduate within 6 years. That’s right, even the the low end of the college basketball spectrum is beating the national average. Having a scholarship makes a big difference in helping you get a degree!