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Why the dearth of Black college baseball coaches is a problem

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The University of Tennessee made history in Omaha this week by winning its first College World Series championship. The tournament began in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier - but, as Greg Echlin reports, college baseball still doesn't have many Black coaches or players.

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: The numbers can be startling. Only 5% of college baseball players in all of Division 1 were Black, only 3% coaches, according to NCAA statistics last year.

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ECHLIN: The College World Series presented a clear picture of the disparity. When the 64-team tournament began earlier this month, there was just one Black head coach in the field - Davin Pierre of Grambling State University - a historically Black university. Only nine of the 26 Black head coaches in Division one were outside HBCUs.

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ECHLIN: The two teams in the College World Series championship series belonged to the Southeastern Conference, one of the five so-called power conferences that many large universities are a part of. There were only two Black assistant coaches among the tournament teams. Austin Wates at Kansas State was one of them.

AUSTIN WATES: It's certainly surprising. I feel like there's enough of us that have been in this game, that play this game, that are around it consistently.

ECHLIN: Wates believes it's a trickle-down problem.

WATES: I think the big thing is that we need to continue to grow our game, especially at the youth level.

ECHLIN: But getting more Black kids to play baseball can be a problem. The Aspen Institute, and others, say basketball and soccer have more appeal for youngsters than baseball. Even so, Major League Baseball has created urban youth academies in several Major League cities and taken other steps to draw more African Americans to the game. Still, Wates says it's difficult. He saw, first hand, kids on travel teams, and how socioeconomic backgrounds squeezed out young, Black baseball prospects.

WATES: To play one summer, you know, it can be $4,000-5,000 for a kid, you know, with all the traveling around the country and tournament entry fees, and some of that's just not attainable for a lot of people.

ECHLIN: That has translated to fewer players on the college level, and, consequently, fewer coaches. Even so, there was one breakthrough this season, when the University of Missouri's Kerrick Jackson became the first Black head baseball coach in the Southeastern Conference.

KERRICK JACKSON: Hopefully, we get ourselves in a position where we get away from the idea of having to talk about first, and now coaches are getting hired, and you don't necessarily recognize or pay attention to what race or ethnicity they represent.

ECHLIN: Still, Jackson is pushing for change. He is chairman of the Diversity in Baseball Committee, formed by the American Baseball Coaches Association. He says it's important to encourage the low percentage of Blacks playing the game to stay involved through coaching.

JACKSON: If you only see them as capable of playing the game and not coaching and teaching the game, and fostering that environment for them, then they don't see that as a reality.

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ECHLIN: And that could make a difference at the College World Series. If, one day, a young Black player became a head coach and led his team to Omaha, that would be history. For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORY WONG'S "AIRPLANE MODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Echlin
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