Has anyone else noticed that winter sports are really white?

We’ve been watching the Olympics.  The pandemic has created an unusual opportunity to see the winter and summer Olympics in close succession.  The winter Olympics has significantly fewer athletes of color.  This is clearly visible comparing the opening ceremonies to each other.  For those of us who are white, it might not occur to us to consider why that disparity exists.  I have some ideas myself, based on what I know about segregation in public and private venues, personal experience as a hockey mom, and growing up in the south.  

I have adorable photos of my kids, covered in sweat, glowing after hockey practice.  They loved it, and I loved that they loved it.  Hockey was exhausting and extremely time consuming.  My kids weren’t even on teams yet.  They were only on practice teams, running drills and learning basic skills on the ice.  There are two main reasons why I feel like hockey and other winter sports might be inherently exclusive, specifically to those with lower incomes.  Winter sports require equipment that some summer sports don’t and they tend to need more time from families.  Each of my boys had their own hockey bag.  These bags were large enough that if I had both boys with me, I had to take our van because my truck wasn’t big enough for both of them and their stuff.  In each bag, you’d find: skates, shin guards, pants, gloves, elbow pads, shoulder pads, neck guard, helmet, jersey, and socks, plus a hockey stick outside of each bag.  It took at least 10 minutes to get each child dressed and ready for the ice.  When I took the boys alone, we needed to get to practice a minimum of 30 minutes prior to whistle, just to sign in and get in gear.  It took another 30 minutes following practice to undress and get changed.  The boys were always drenched, so we needed an entirely new set of clothes to wear out of the rink.  Between the hour long practice and the dress in and dress out, one hockey practice took us nearly 2 and half hours.  That’s 2 and half hours that one of us had to be available to give, which is not possible for many parents who work jobs with weekend and evening hours.  Fortunately, our hockey team offered rental gear.  Even so, we spent about $150 every six months or so to borrow the gear and the bag, though the boys’ jerseys and socks were ours to keep.  Without renting, gear can cost up to $700 or more and needs to be replaced with growth and wear and tear.  In other words, hockey isn’t cheap.  Of course, there are some summer sports that are expensive.  Any parent with a kid in competitive gymnastics will agree to this.  But, there are a lot of summer sports that aren’t as costly.  Running takes a pair of shoes and very little else.  Training for running can be done all over the place and isn’t necessarily contingent on a specific destination.  Likewise, basketball needs a ball and a hoop, which can often be found in many public parks.  Even weight lifting can be done with a basic gym membership to Planet Fitness for less than $120 a year.  The less gear a sport requires, the more accessible it becomes.

Beyond finances, the history of some winter sports (and some summer to be fair) involves segregation.  Before integration, communities of color weren’t allowed to use public facilities that white people used or they had to use them during times that were designated specifically for that purpose.  The reactions of white people were so egregious, such as draining and refilling swimming pools, that many people of color didn’t participate in some activities unless there was a separate facility.  Since laws didn’t require that local governments allocate specific amounts of money to maintain facilities, many communities of color were left with dilapidated resources or none at all.  Even after public spaces were integrated, private spaces were not required to, and many didn’t.  If finances were not a concern, you couldn’t play hockey as a person with black or brown skin if the hockey club didn’t allow anyone but white people inside.  Because of segregation and intentional exclusion, people of color have had significantly less access to many sports, especially those that happen inside closed doors or require equipment purchased from stores that can decide who their customer base is.  

For about 3 weeks, my sons had a black teammate at the rink.  Each time he left with the biggest grin.  Of course he did–the ice is exhilarating.  I remember one girl with pink laces yelling, “I’m flying!”, and it was such a genuine truth.  For that little bit of time, you can be a version of yourself you didn’t know was possible.  I noticed when their teammate stopped coming and I found out later he was given a scholarship to try hockey, to see if he liked it, but the costs and the time were prohibitive and he couldn’t come anymore.  When my sons asked why he was absent, telling them his family couldn’t afford it wasn’t a good enough answer to me.  Yes, that was true, but there is so much more to it than that.  There is a reason we can pay for gear and take time to go to practice–because we live in a society that is designed to elevate people with skin that looks like ours.  Integrating sports didn’t remove the generational damage of racism.  It didn’t return stolen wealth or conquer the consequences of redlining.

Finally, a difficult truth to accept is that the lack of people of color in winter sports in the United States might have something to do with the lack of people of color outside of the southeast corner of its map.  Other than large cities that grew with the great migration, states with snow and ice don’t typically have the overall racial diversity that states like Georgia and Louisiana have.  They have that diversity because their population includes the descendents of slaves.  Iowa is about 85% white.  Georgia is about 50% white.  Below, I’ll list the percentage of white people in some northern and southern states to illustrate my theory.

Utah-75% white

Louisiana- 58% white

Minnesota- 80% white

Florida -53% white

Indiana- 79% white

Mississippi- 58% white

Michigan- 73% white

Texas- 42% white

Vermont- 94% white

I realize my idea above might be a bit of a stretch, but I think it holds.  It’s terribly expensive to relocate.  Consequently, many former slaves remained in the same southern states that had enslaved them.  Other than Maryland and Delaware, the ten other states with the largest percentage of people who identify as Black or African American were slave states that seceded from the United States during the Civil War. 

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