Why have black folks excelled in sports and music?
What can we learn from their success?
Nowadays people take for granted the prevalence of black professionals in the fields of sports and music entertainment. Of course, contrary to stereotypes, all black folks do not excel at football and basketball or R&B/hip-hop music. However, black folks do as a whole overperform in those fields. By that, I mean that the proportion of black stars in the fields of sports and music entertainment far exceed their proportion of the U.S. population. According to the 2020 U.S. census, blacks represent 12.4% of the U.S. population. Yet as of 2022, 56.4% of pro football players (and 36.3% of assistant coaches) were black. As of 2021, 73.2% of professional basketball players were black. Turning to the field of music, we see similar overperformance by black professionals. In 2020, according to MRC Data (formerly Nielsen Music), ‘R&B/hip-hop’ claimed a 28.2% share of total album-equivalent consumption. These accomplishments have transformed sports and music, and are amazing given the relatively short period of time over which they were achieved. They also stand in stark contrast to black advancement in other professional fields such as medicine, business management, and technology, where black participation generally falls far short of their population share. While black advancement in sports and music is indeed incredible, those fields don’t offer enough positions to make a meaningful difference in overall black economic status. (On this score, my good friend Reggie Barnett pointed me to an amazing statistic: less than 5000 people have ever played in an NBA basketball game!) Opportunities in professional sports and music comprise a vanishingly small portion of the overall job market. This fact compels us to consider what factors fueled black success in sports and music entertainment and how those factors might apply to other fields.
Sports and Music Industries Transformed
What transformation am I referring to? When I talk with students about this subject, I often show them a picture of the 1953 Detroit Lions football team. Why 1953? Because that’s the year I was born, so that year qualifies as being “in my lifetime.” It is also the year before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, deemed by many to be the first major victory of the modern civil rights movement. Absolutely no one in the picture is black: not a single player, coach, manager, ball boy, or water boy. (Incidentally, the Lions were NFL champs in 1953, and not since. Maybe this year?)
I could have shown my students a similar example in basketball. The 1953-54 Minnesota Lakers (yes, Minnesota – they moved to Los Angeles in 1960) were NBA champions. As shown in the picture, they had not a single black player or coach.
The music situation in 1953 was a bit less stark. The top popular songs by retail sales listed in 1953 included not one but two black artists: the great Nat King Cole (with Nelson Riddle), and the fabulous Eartha Kitt (with Henri René). Of course neither recognized song was from a black music genre, and both black artists were recognized along with their white producer/composer. Still, their success was a significant milestone, and a source of pride and hope for many blacks of that era.
One has to wonder what caused such dramatic change since the 1950s. Of course you might say the change is due to the U.S. civil rights movement and resulting legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and you would be partially correct. However, if that were the only reason for the transformation, why hasn’t similar dramatic change occurred in other fields such as law or medicine or business management? Blacks have certainly made significant advancements in almost every field, but in most their participation remains below their population percentage. Fact is, the successes of the civil-rights movement enabled but did not facilitate full participation by blacks and other underrepresented groups.
To find the answer, in my opinion, we would do better to examine the situation through a business and entrepreneurship lens rather than a sociological one. Viewed this way, I believe black success in sports and music boils down to three factors: performance metrics, deep expertise, and community connections. A person needs expertise to create value. They need community connections to acquire expertise and to exchange value. They need performance metrics to ensure fair recognition and compensation.
In sports the objective is clear – WIN – and the rules are well defined. Performance is not subjective. Touchdowns scored. Yards gained. Passes caught. Points scored, assists, rebounds. When you perform, you reap the rewards. This is different from the corporate environment, where performance standards are often unclear and performance reviews are often subjective. In sports, there is a huge penalty for failing to play the best players: you lose! This fact forces team owners and their organizations to cut the crap and give credit where credit is due.
In addition to incentivizing professionals, clear performance metrics form a strong incentive for young people who aspire to be professionals. Why? Because they offer the prospect that the incredibly hard work required to develop professional-level skills (i.e. deep expertise) will be appropriately rewarded.
The Power of Community
Now let’s think about community connections, with an example from the music world. The R&B/hip-hop music genre has achieved dominance in the past 60 years. I was a kid growing up in Flint, Michigan when Motown became a music industry force, with artists like the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, and my personal all-time favorite, Stevie Wonder. Previous to Motown, the music industry was dominated by white performers. Today, one might say the opposite is true. What happened?
Black artists were responding to a need felt in their own community, and filling that need gave them and a company like Motown the resources they needed to develop and thrive. Sure, these black artists were able to “cross over” to fans in the white community later, but without access to an early and loyal group of “early-adopter” fans from their own community, their talent would never have taken root. The same is true for the later development of hip-hop. Today we see many white and Asian kids playing hip-hop music, but the genre took root because it was responding to an urgent need felt in the black community – a need to be heard and validated and inspired. Of course community connections alone weren’t enough for these artists to achieve success. They had to acquire deep artistic expertise, and “professional” connections within their own community (including but not limited to black churches) gave them access to that expertise. Excellence didn’t require formal training or a college degree, but it did require incredibly hard work.
Applying the Lessons: Black Tech Success
My co-founders (Steven Moore and Charles Simmons) and I built a successful technology business at a time when such success by a team of three young black engineers was improbable. We started our venture, Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS), in 1984, a time when black representation in technology businesses was almost nonexistent. Even so, individual black engineers and scientists had been registering significant technical accomplishments for many years. Those black technology trailblazers generally served white organizations, but their technical contributions could not be denied. (See my article about the groundbreaking achievements of Dr. Walter McAfee. Also see the book or the movie Hidden Figures). Steve, Charles, and I set out on a more independent path: to create our own technology company and to extract for ourselves the value we created.
My cofounders and I each chose the field of engineering partly because the measures of performance were largely objective. The math and science subjects we gravitated to in high school and college didn’t lend themselves to the subjective grading of, say, an English exam or history essay. We earned access to top universities where we acquired the deep engineering expertise required for success. We landed jobs at the legendary Bell Laboratories at a time when that company first accepted significant numbers of black (and Asian and female) members into their professional community. We became familiar with and comfortable in a community of telecommunications industry professionals. That community was our source of professional experience and connections. That same industry community formed our eventual customer base. Though we faced stiff competition and occasional bias in establishing our company, we generally did very well when our products were objectively compared to the competition. Twelve years after starting TAS, we extracted the value we had created by selling the company to a U.K.-based multinational firm.
So whether we consider the blacks who transformed professional sports and music, or the nascent success of black technologists like the TAS founders, we can see the importance of performance metrics, deep expertise, and community connections. Aspiring individuals and organizations would do well to consider the following questions:
- How will your performance be measured and rewarded? What constitutes excellent performance? What must you do to maximize your perceived performance? Does the structure of your field lend itself to objective performance assessment?
- What core expertise do you possess? Is your expertise aligned with what you are trying to accomplish? Is your core expertise enough to distinguish you from the inevitable competitors? Do you need to develop or acquire additional expertise to achieve success?
- Are you engaged with a professional community that provides needed information and resources and connections? Are you connected with a community of actual or potential customers? Do potential customers truly need and value the product you are offering?
Careful consideration of performance metrics, core expertise, and community connections can help you maximize your (and your venture’s) chances for success. You may even transform your industry!
While searching the internet for a picture of a “typical” Bell Labs group from the 60s or 70s, I came across the picture included above. It was indeed an accurate portrayal of a Bell Labs group from that period. I assumed that the woman in the foreground was the group secretary, especially as she is seated and not wearing a badge. I remember that in many groups from those days, the secretary would be the only woman in the group. In this case though, my assumption proved very wrong. The woman in the picture, Sherry Sisson, was a Bell Labs engineer, and the picture is from a brief story she wrote about her career. She recounted what it was like being one of few women engineers at Bell Labs in those days, and how company policy forced her to quit when she became pregnant with her first child. After being introduced to flying by her husband, who also worked at Bell Labs, Sherry became an accomplished pilot and received an FAA award for 50 years of safe flying. She was an example of the fascinating and talented people of many different backgrounds who worked at Bell Labs. After reading Sherry’s story, I resolved to send her a note of positive feedback. I searched on Google for more information about her and found some disappointing news. Sherry Sisson, age 78, was killed in 2021. She was hit by a truck while riding her bicycle. A tragic end to an accomplished life. I’ve included a link to Sherry’s story here.