Sunday will mark the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. MLB players will honor his legacy the same way they have since 2009, by wearing No. 42 on the field on Jackie Robinson Day. Robinson's number is the only one in any sport to be universally retired by every team in the league.
Robinson's vision for the future of baseball in America was a talent pool with more diversity and inclusion to push the sport forward. However, his passion for change did not stop at the talent that was playing on the diamond; he wanted to see real change in manager and front-office positions as well. While baseball is moving in that direction, there is still a long way to go to achieve Robinson's goal.
On Thursday, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport released the 2018 Major League Baseball Racial and Gender Report Card. The findings display an overall improvement in inclusive hiring practices in MLB front offices and on the field.
MLB received a B-plus for racial hiring practices and a C for gender hiring practices, resulting in an overall grade of C-plus/B-minus. The racial hiring increased substantially and the gender hiring grade increased slightly. The overall grade also increased.
It should be mentioned that the player data in the report has not changed from 2017, due to a change in the MLB's reporting period for this data; 2018 marked the first year that MLB has moved to a calendar-year reporting period instead of one that begins on Opening Day of each respective season.
I have high hopes that the history made last year, when 42.5 percent of MLB players were people of color, will continue into the future. Jackie Robinson would not be satisfied, however, with the lack of representation of African-American players; last year's findings showed only 7.7 percent. This was the lowest percentage of African-American players since we began these studies in 1991. In 1991, 18 percent of all players in MLB were African-American -- a stark difference from where we are today.
The diminishing number of African-American professional baseball players is a reflection of the demographics in collegiate baseball and the opportunities for African-American youth to play the game. African-American youth can more easily find role models within the ranks of the NBA or NFL when choosing what sport to pursue. There is still a great struggle for these children, predominantly in urban areas, to find opportunities to play baseball. The barriers standing in the way of participation range from a lack of access to playing fields to high fees for travel teams.
In NCAA Division I in 2017, only 3.7 percent of male student-athletes participating on varsity baseball teams identified as African-American. Compare that to professional pipelines for football and basketball: In Division I, 44.2 percent of football and 53 percent of basketball male student-athletes were African-American.
MLB is making strides in providing opportunities to the youth of our country to better connect with America's pastime. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiative aims to create opportunities for young people from underserved and diverse communities to play baseball and softball. RBI currently serves hundreds of thousands of young Americans in over 300 programs in approximately 200 cities worldwide. This year was the third consecutive year that an alumnus of the RBI program was selected within the top five picks in the draft.
MLB officials were encouraged by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) Annual Participation Report, which showed promising growth in baseball among African-American youth. Among other findings, it reported that baseball has the second-highest rate of participation among African-American youth, exceeding that for football.
There remains a lack of racial diversity in the key positions of manager and general manager in MLB. There are only four major league managers of color -- three Latinos and one of two of more races -- which is an increase of one from 2017. This is six below the all-time high of 10, reached in both 2002 and 2009.
There are only two racially diverse individuals at the general manager position: Farhan Zaidi (Los Angeles Dodgers), the first Muslim general manager for any American professional sports franchise; and Al Avila (Detroit Tigers), who identifies as Latino. Jackie Robinson would surely be frustrated with the lack of diverse representation in these positions. MLB lags behind the NFL and NBA in these areas and needs to improve in the near future.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and leader of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, shared with me, "In many ways, Jackie Robinson not only broke the color barrier for baseball in 1947, he was the spark that ignited the entire civil rights movement in America. Before Rosa [Parks] sat, before Martin [Luther King] marched, before Malcolm [X] spoke, Jackie Robinson was stealing bases, hitting home runs and winning awards with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As he succeeded we all succeeded, and he was a catalyst to help begin tearing down the walls of separation, segregation and division in this country.
"[But] as we commemorate the 71st year of his historic breakthrough, the game of baseball is still in great need of inclusion both on and off the field of play. ... An enormous gap still exits as the number of African-American players and personnel pale in comparison to other ethnic groups. Not only are there fewer blacks playing the game, Major League Baseball lags far behind the NFL and NBA in hiring coaches, executives and other leaders in administration and management.
"I appeal to Commissioner Rob Manfred, in the spirit [of] Jackie Robinson, to lead Major League Baseball in investing more resources into underprivileged and underserved areas where predominantly black youth can be found. In the same way MLB has prioritized developing players and pipelines in Latin American countries, there should be a more intentional effort to connect and cultivate black communities in the U.S. with the national pastime."
I do think Jackie Robinson would be proud of the initiative taken within the MLB's central office regarding racial and gender inclusive hiring practices. This year, the percentage of people of color in the office increased by 5.7 percentage points to 33.8 percent and the percentage of women increased by 2.5 percentage points to 31.8 percent.
The area that best reflects who is playing on the field is team coaches. This year, the number of coaches of color improved to an all-time high of 45.9 percent. Hopefully, this will provide a more diverse pipeline for managerial and general manager positions in the near future.
The largest percentages of women in baseball are: MLB central office staff, senior administrators and team professional administrators. These percentages are 31.8, 27.7, and 27.7 for each area respectively. None of these resulted in good grades.
There are no people of color or women who are team presidents. Also, team vice presidents in the MLB are predominately white males. Representation for people of color and women has increased this year to 13.9 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively, but there is still a need for improvement in order for sports to become more diverse and inclusive. As progress occurs and this becomes reality, we might see changes in the demographics of managers and general managers in MLB.
Delise O'Meally, the executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, shared this with me: "While it is encouraging to see the progress the league office has made over the past year by harnessing diversity and inclusion as a business imperative, similar progress is not seen at the team level, where the leadership structure continues to remain overwhelmingly white and male.
"In a league with such diverse rosters, where the best of the best come together to create magic on the diamond, the continued lack of diversity in the team front offices is disappointing. On the field as well as in the boardroom, America's pastime should reflect the changing face of this nation."
America will honor Jackie Robinson this Sunday and every player will don his number to mark 71 years since the debut of the player who changed the sport forever. I hope that the league continues its efforts in honoring Robinson as a hero of the sport by carrying out his dream of diversity and inclusion throughout baseball in our nation for years to come.
Brett Estrella contributed significantly to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.