In the SEC West, a widening gap among races in football, basketball and baseball

Plenty will be discussed this week at the Southeastern Conference’s spring meetings in Destin, Florida.

Thousands of articles, newscasts, radio interviews and blog posts will flow from the conference’s well-tanned powers-that-be, covering hot topics such as the SEC’s own distribution channel, its role in a proposed national football tourney and – gasp! – the possibility the Razorbacks will soon sport black uniforms on the gridiron.

One thing that won’t be discussed, however, is color beneath the uniforms.

Today’s African-Americans are playing less baseball than previous generations, and this is most visible through the increasing scarcity of blacks in Major League Baseball and power conferences like the SEC. Much has already been made about the MLB stats: In 1975, African-Americans comprised 27% of Major League Baseball rosters. That’s dropped to eight percent.

Less attention, however, has been paid to SEC baseball. The conference wasn’t thoroughly integrated until the 1970s, and black participation was never as prevalent on its baseball teams as  in the pros. Still, African-Americans’ contributions were significant (Arkansas, for instance, had five black starters on its 1985 World Series team).

In the last 25 years, though, more and more blacks have chosen full football and basketball scholarships rather than accept the partial scholarships NCAA baseball programs must disperse. This is one reason for a widening disparity in participation among races in the major sports.

Naturally, I’m most interested in Arkansas, so I looked at its division –   the SEC West. In 2010, the SEC West had 186 student-athletes in baseball. Six (3.2%) were black, according to the NCAA. Meanwhile, in this division blacks made up 72% of the football rosters and 80% of the basketball rosters.

Some people may ask: “Why does this matter? Why stir the pot by bringing up race?”

I would answer these numbers are important because if baseball is supposed to represent most Americans and our  culture, then it should not be a sport leaving out entire demographics. “If baseball is going to be seen as the national pastime, you would hope it would reflect the diversity of the country,”  Richard Lapchik, director of Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, told the Associated Press in 2005.

It wasn’t always this way. I explore the many reasons for the decline of the black baseball player in the SEC, with a focus on Arkansas, in this Sunday’s Perspective section [update: June 10] of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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