Picture this. Walking down 135th street in Harlem, you spot a park in the distance. As you walk closer, you hear a basketball bouncing and kids yelling. It’s a small, outdoor court, well-maintained with fresh paint and a sturdy chain-link fence surrounding it. The ball is constantly in motion, being passed, dribbled, and shot from all angles. As the game progresses, the excitement draws in more kids around the court. 

New York City is synonymous with basketball. From Harlem to Brooklyn, basketball has been a part of the city’s culture for decades. But why has basketball become such a staple of African American culture in cities? The answer is complex, but the roots of its popularity among minority groups stem from discriminatory practices like redlining and segregation.

A White Man’s Sport

Basketball was originally invented as a white man’s game

  – Micheal Novack, The Joy of Sports (1946)

Basketball was founded in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor seeking a way to keep his students active. By the early 1900s, it was being played in colleges and high schools across the nation. Colleges like Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Princeton began to play games against each other as early as 1901. The first professional basketball league, the National Basketball League (NBL), was founded in 1937. It was later merged with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. 

The 1950 Minneapolis Lakers basketball team, Wikimedia Commons

For the first 30 years, the majority of participants at the collegiate and professional level were white, as black participants were barred from playing. The first black collegiate player, George Gregory Jr, did not appear until 1928. In the 1949-1950 season Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton, and Earl Lloyd became the first black players to play professional basketball, breaking the color barrier. Basketball at this time was played mostly at community centers like YMCAs, where white owners refused membership to black people. If black people wanted to play basketball, they would need to build their own. 

NYC’s History Of Racial, Economic, and Athletic Segregation

Redlining and other forms of economic discrimination depressed resources in minority neighborhoods. Redlining is an exclusionary practice that began in 1934 with the implementation of the National Housing Act (NHA). The NHA created government programs such as the Federal Housing Association (FHA) and the HomeOwner Loan Corporation (HOLC) with the intent to improve the housing market. It intended to promote homeownership by providing mortgage insurance to lenders, which would make it easier for people to obtain loans to buy homes. While the FHA improved housing conditions for White people, this support largely excluded black people.

The HOLC wrote dozens of reports to banks which categorized areas with large populations of black residents as “risky” for investors, driving down their property values and scaring off many potential investors. The FHA then used these maps to guide its lending policies, which meant refusing federally insured housing loans for minorities. In addition to this, as more black people began moving to white neighborhoods in northern cities in efforts to escape Jim Crow segregation, white people began to create suburbs outside the city to escape the influx of black people. As more white homeowners fled to the suburbs, the remaining ones agreed to sell their homes at deeper discounts, fearful of falling prices. 

Economic inequality caused by redlining practices also created disparities in the types of sports played by the kids in poorer neighborhoods. Redlined neighborhoods have less green space and have smaller parks on average. According to an analysis by the Trust for Public Land, the average park size is 6.4 acres in poor neighborhoods, compared with 14 acres in wealthy neighborhoods in New York City. 

In addition to available parks, minority children gravitated toward basketball because of the cost of entry barriers that other sports carried. In order to play baseball at a high level, you need money to pay for equipment and travel teams. Basketball did not carry this prerequisite. David C Ogden, a professor at the University of Nebraska who studied race and sport dynamics, wrote that the most common reasons for the lack of racial diversity were the paucity of baseball facilities in Black neighborhoods, and the cost of playing select baseball. As a result:

“More than two-thirds of the 27 coaches said that African-American youth prefer to spend their time on the basketball court rather than on the diamond”

Ogden (2003)

Rise of Black YMCAs

Basketball’s popularity among minority communities flourished because of the development of black YMCA’s. The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn would be the first fully independent Black basketball team in America in 1907. As more and more YMCA’s appeared in major cities, basketball spread in similar fashion. 

In the last game of the season, the 12th Streeters beat the Smart Set in Brooklyn 20:17 in front of more than 2,000 spectators and in this way directly dethroned the reigning champion.” (Domke 2011)

Edwin Bancroft Henderson, an educator working in Washington D.C., introduced the game of basketball to the Black community. Henderson learned the game during summer sessions at Harvard University, and then introduced the game to young Black men in the Wash. D.C. area. Soon the game would be played across the east coast of the United States, mainly in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  

Basketball also became a means for economic upward mobility. The Harlem Globetrotters formed in 1926 and became the most renowned basketball team for black basketball players. For black basketball players, the globetrotters provided the best and only way to make a living while playing basketball. 

Basketball Today

Now, basketball is an important part of NYC culture, regardless of race. Black participation in basketball has soared in the decades after segregation, and has especially soared in NYC. Every summer, minority communities gather for basketball tournaments held in NYC parks, some that even draw national attention. Nike sponsored “NY vs NY” and Slam magazine’s Summer Classic feature the top ranked high school players and have thousands of fans watching every summer. They both have been held in Dyckman park in Manhattan for the past 5 years.

 Significant changes have occurred  in professional demographics as well. In contrast to 1950, 75 % of the NBA is black, with a bunch of black athletes playing abroad in leagues all over the world. Segregation and redlining stifled black participation in basketball in its early history, but the economic conditions it fostered helped basketball become an enduring staple of the community for generations.

Sharif Nelson ‘26 is a student at Hamilton College studying economics. 

Additional Resources:

Aaronson, D., Faber, J., Hartley, D., Mazumder, B., & Sharkey, P. (2020). The Long-Run Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps on Place-Based Measures of Economic Opportunity and Socioeconomic Success. The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps 

Bowen, F. (2023, April 7). In its early years, NBA blocked black players. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from

Centopani, P. (2020, February 24). The makings of basketball mecca: Why it will always be New York. FanSided. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from 

Domke, M. (2011). Into the vertical: Basketball, urbanization, and African American … Into the Vertical: Basketball, Urbanization, and African American Culture in Early- Twentieth-Century America. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from

Gay, C. (2022, January 13). The black fives: A history of the era that led to the NBA’s racial integration. Sporting News Canada. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from 

Gorey, J. (2022, July 25). How “White flight” segregated American cities and Suburbs. Apartment Therapy. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from 

Hunt, M. (2022, October 11). What is the National Housing Act? Bankrate. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from,Loan%20Insurance%20Corporation%20(FSLIC).

Hu, W., & Schweber, N. (2020, July 15). New York City has 2,300 parks. but poor neighborhoods lose out. The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from

Ivy league regular season champions, by Year. Coaches Database. (2023, March 5). Retrieved April 24, 2023, from

McIntosh, K., Moss, E., Nunn, R., & Shambaugh, J. (2022, March 9). Examining the black-white wealth gap. Brookings. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from

Ogden, D. C. ., & Hilt, M. L. . (2003). Collective Identity and Basketball: An Explanation for the Decreasing Number of African Americans on America’s Baseball Diamond. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from

Ortigas, R., Okorom-Achuonyne, B., & Jackson, S. (n.d.). What exactly is redlining? Inequality in NYC. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from

Pearson, S. (2022). Basketball origins, growth and history of the game. History of The Game Of Basketball Including The NBA and the NCAA. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from 

Robertson, N. M. (1995). [Review of Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946., by N. Mjagkij]. Contemporary Sociology24(2), 192–193.

Townsley, J., Nowlin, M., & Andres, U. M. (2022, August 18). The lasting impacts of segregation and redlining. SAVI. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from

Sociology Twitter lit up after the US Women’s National Team’s World Cup win with the revelation that many of their players were sociology majors in college. It is an inspiration to see the team succeed at the highest levels and call for social change while doing so.

This news also raised an interesting question: do student athletes major in sociology because it is a compelling field (yay, us!) or because they are tracked into the major by academic advisors who see it as an “easy” choice to balance with sports?

According to data from the NCAA, the most common majors for both student athletes and the wider student body at Division 1 schools are business, STEM, and social sciences. Trend data show the biggest difference is in the choice between business and STEM; both groups seem to pick up social science majors at similar rates.

Source: NCAA D1 Diploma Dashboard

While the rate of majors is not that different, there is something special that sociology can do for these students. Student athlete lives are heavily administered. Between practice, conditioning, scheduled events, meals, and classes, many barely have a few hours to complete a full load of course work. In grad school, I tutored many student athletes who were sociology majors, and I watched them juggle their work with the demands of heavy travel schedules and intense workouts, all under the watchful eye of an army of advisors, coaches, mentors, and doctors. The experience is very close to what Erving Goffman called a “total institution” in Asylums:

“A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life. (1961, p. xiii)”

We usually associate total institutions with prisons and punishment, but this definition highlights the intense management that defines the college experience for many student athletes. When I tutored athletes in sociology, we spent a lot of time comparing their readings to the world around them. Sociological thinking about institutions, bureaucracy, and work gave them a language to think about and talk about their experiences in context.

Athletic programs can be complicated for colleges and universities, and there is ongoing debate about how the “student” status in student athlete shapes their obligation to pay for all this work. As debates about college athletics continue, it is important for players, fans, and administrators to think sociologically about their industry to see how it can better serve players as both students and athletes.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

Many tennis clubs today uphold an all-white dress code. But does this homage to tradition come with the racism and sexism of the past? Wimbledon’s achromatic clothing policy hearkens back to the Victorian era, when donning colorless attire was regarded as a necessary measure to combat the indecency of sweat stains, particularly for women. Of course, back then, women customarily played tennis in full-length skirts and men in long cotton pants — also for propriety’s sake.  

Serena Williams at the French Open, 2018 Anne White at Wimbledon, 1985

But today, not all tennis clubs insist on all-white.While Wimbledon is known for having the strictest dress standards (even Anne White’s catsuit pictured above got banned there in 1985), the other grand slams, including the French Open (along with the U.S. Open and the Australian Open), have recently become venues for athletes to showcase custom fashions in dramatic colors and patterns. Since the advent of color TV, athletes have used their clothing to express their personality and distinguish themselves from their competitors.

For instance, Serena Williams wore a black Nike catsuit to this year’s French Open. Her catsuit, a full-body compression garment, not only made her feel like a “superhero,” but also functioned to prevent blood clots, a health issue she’s dealt with frequently and which contributed to complications with the birth of her daughter. On Instagram, she dedicated it to “all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.”

Despite this supposed freedom, Williams’ catsuit drew the ire of the French Tennis Federation. Its president, Bernard Giudicelli, said in an interview with Tennis Magazine that “[Catsuits] will no longer be accepted.” The FTF will be asking designers to give them an advance look at designs for players and will “impose certain limits.” His rationale?I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” and “One must respect the game and the place.”

The new policy and the coded language Giudicelli used to justify it have been called out as both racist and sexist. By characterizing Williams’s catsuit as a failure to “respect the game,” the FTF echoes other professional sporting associations who have criticized Black football players kneeling during the anthem and Black or Latino baseball players’ celebrating home runs. Moreover, the criticism of Williams’ form-fitting clothing and the reactionary new dress code it spawned are merely the latest in a series of critiques of Williams’ physique.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains in his “Program for a Sociology of Sport” that practices like the policing of athletes’ apparel are a way for the tennis elite to separate themselves from other players and preserve a hierarchy of social status. This became necessary as the sport, derived from royal tennis and known as the “Sport of Kings,” experienced a huge increase in popularity since the 1960s. Bourdieu describes how this expansion resulted in a variety of ways to play tennis, some more distinctive than others:

…under the same name, one finds ways of playing that are as different as cross-country skiing, mountain touring, and downhill skiing are in their own domain. For example, the tennis of small municipal clubs, played in jeans and Adidas on hard surfaces, has very little in common with the tennis in white outfits and pleated skirts which was the rule some 20 years ago and still endures in select clubs. (One would also find a world of differences at the level of the style of the players, in their relation to competition and to training, etc.)

In reanimating the dress code, FTF officials are engaging in boundary work to preserve the status of a certain kind of tennis — and, by extension, a certain kind of tennis player — at the top of the hierarchy. In so doing, it is limiting the expression of a sports icon who redefines beauty and femininity and perhaps elite tennis itself.

Amy August is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on education, family, culture, and sport. Her dissertation work uses qualitative methods to compare the forms of social capital recognized and rewarded by teachers and coaches in school and sports. Amy holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a MA in Teaching from Dominican University, and a MA in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago.

Our lives are a team effort, often influenced by larger social forces outside of our control. At the same time, we love stories about singular heroes rising to the occasion. Sociologists often argue that focusing too much on individual merit teaches us not to see the rest of the social world at play.

Photo Credit: Vadu Amka, Flickr CC

One of my favorite recent examples of this is a case from Christopher A. Paul’s book, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games, about the popular team-based competitive shooter Overwatch. After the match is over and a winning team declared, one player is awarded “play of the game,” and everyone watches an automatically-generated replay. Paul writes that the replay…

… takes one moment out of context and then chooses to only celebrate one of twelve players when the efforts of the other members of the team often make the moment possible…a more dynamic, holistic system would likely be harder to judge and code, which is a problem at the heart of meritocracy. Actually judging skill or effort is ridiculously difficult to do…the algorithm built into selecting what is the play of the game and which statistics will be highlighted rewards only what it can count and judge, stripping out situation and context. (2018, Pp. 34-35)

It isn’t just the computer doing this; there is a whole genre of youtube videos devoted to top plays and personalized highlight reels from games like Overwatch, Paladins, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.


Paul’s point got me thinking about the structure and culture of replays in general. They aren’t always about a star player. Sometimes we see the execution of a brilliant team play. Other times, it’s all about the star’s slam dunk. But replays do highlight one of the weird structural features about modern competition. Many of the most popular video games in the massive esports industry are team based, but because these are often played in a first-person or limited third person view, replays and highlight reels from these games are often cast from the perspective of a single “star” player.

This is a great exercise for thinking sociologically in everyday life and in the classroom. Watch some replays from your favorite team sport. Are the highlights emphasizing teamwork or are they focusing on a single player’s achievements? Do you think different replays would have been possible without the efforts of the rest of the team? How does the structure of the shot—the composition and perspective—shape the viewer’s interpretation of what happened on the field?Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

Want to help fight fake news and manage political panics? We have to learn to talk about numbers.

While teaching basic statistics to sociology undergraduates, one of the biggest trends I noticed was students who thought they hated math experiencing a brain shutdown when it was time to interpret their results. I felt the same way when I started in this field, and so I am a big advocate for working hard to bridge the gap between numeracy and literacy. You don’t have to be a statistical wizard to make your reporting clear to readers.

Sociology is a great field to do this, because we are used to going out into the world and finding all kinds of cultural tropes (like pointlessly gendered products!). My new favorite trope is the Half-Dozen Headline. You can spot them in the wild, or through Google News with a search for “half dozen.” Every time I read one of these headlines, my brain echoes with “half of a dozen is six.”

Sometimes, six is a lot:

Sometimes, six is not:

(at least, not relative to past administrations)

Sometimes, well, we just don’t know:

Is this five deaths (nearly six)? Is a rate of about two deaths a year in a Walmart parking lot high? If people already struggle to interpret raw numbers, wrapping your findings in fuzzy language only makes the problem worse.

Spotting Half-Dozen Headlines is a great introductory exercise for classes in social statistics, public policy, journalism, or other fields that use applied data analysis. If you find a favorite Half-Dozen Headline, be sure to send it our way!Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

Flashback Friday, in honor of Kathrine Switzer running the Boston marathon 50 years after she was physically removed from the race because it was Men Only.

The first Olympic marathon was held in 1896. It was open to men only and was won by a Greek named Spyridon Louis. A woman named Melpomene snuck onto the marathon route. She finished an hour and a half behind Louis, but beat plenty of men who ran slower or dropped out.

Women snuck onto marathon courses from that point forward. Resistance to their participation was strong and, I believe, reflects men’s often unconscious fear that women might in fact be their equals. Why else would they so vociferously object to women’s participation? If women are, indeed, so weak and inferior, what’s to fear from their running alongside men?

Illustrating what seems to be a degree of panic above and beyond an imperative to follow the rules, the two photos  below show the response to Syracuse University Katherine Switzer’s running the man-only Boston marathon in 1967 (Switzer registered for the marathon using her initials). After two miles, race officials realized one of their runners was a girl. Their response? To physically remove her from the race. Luckily, some of her male Syracuse teammates body blocked their grab:

Why not let her run? The race was man-only, so her stats, whatever they may be, were invalid. Why take her out of the race by force? For the same reason that women were excluded to begin with: their actual potential is not obviously inferior to men’s. If it were, there’d be no risk in letting her run. The only sex that is threatened by co-ed sports is the sex whose superiority is assumed.

Women were allowed to begin competing in marathons starting in 1972 — not so very long ago — and, just like Melponeme, while they’ve been slower on average, individual women have been beating individual men ever since. In fact, women have been getting faster and faster, shrinking the gender gap in completion times, because achievement and opportunity go hand in hand.

Thanks Kathrine Switzer, and congratulations.

Originally posted in 2012.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In a humorous article, Gloria Steinem asked, “What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” Men, she asserted, would re-frame menstruation as a “enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event” about which they would brag (“about how long and how much”).  She writes:

Street guys would brag (“I’m a three pad man”) or answer praise from a buddy (“Man, you lookin’ good!”) by giving fives and saying, “Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!”

Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”), occupy political office (“can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priest and ministers (“how could a woman give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”).

Of course, male intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets – and thus for measuring anything at all?

Perhaps in homage to this article, the artist Käthe Ivansich developed an installation titled “Menstruation Skateboards” for the Secession Museum in Austria. Drawing on the same sort of re-framing, the exhibition was marketed with ads with bruised and bloody women and tag lines like “I heart blood sports” and “some girls bleed more than once a month.”  See examples at Ivansich’s website.

The exhibition included skateboards that generally mocked sexist language and re-claimed the blood of menstruation. This blood, the message is, makes me hardcore. The art project nicely makes Steinem’s point, showing how things like menstruation can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the social status of the person with whom it is associated.

Originally posted in September, 2010.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.