Ralph Wiley's voice boomed through the ear piece of the telephone with authority. Not quite yelling, definitely not screaming, but loud enough that I could hold the receiver at arm's length and probably still hear him if it was across the room. He spoke with the resolve of a man who refused to be taken for granted. It was our first conversation and he wanted to be perfectly clear.
"Are you asking me to do this because I'm black? Because I'm a black man? Because I'm the Black Voice of ESPN.com?"
The answer, of course, was no. And yes.
It was proverbial fence-sitting between right and wrong, ever so dependent upon the point of view. Which is why I had dialed up Ralph to brainstorm an idea for a column: Is there a greater onus on black athletes to give back to their communities?
It was January of 2002 and the St. Louis Rams were headed to Super Bowl XXXVI in the Big Easy, old stomping grounds for Marshall Faulk. Long before Faulk had given the Rams' offense a new dimension with his slashing, play-making style out of the backfield, he was a local high school star who banked on his athletic ability and the helping hand of those who worked on the front lines of community programs in his neighborhood to get out of the notorious Desire Housing Project in New Orleans' poverty-stricken Ninth Ward.
After he had struck his riches as a professional athlete, Faulk shared it with those same programs in New Orleans. In more recent years, though, he had begun to concentrate his philanthropic contributions on similar programs in NFL cities that he had called home, first in Indianapolis and later in St. Louis. When the donations in his hometown were reduced to a trickle, a cry went out from those who wondered aloud if Faulk had forgotten his roots.
What better issue could there be for Wiley to tackle?
Which is precisely why he took such exception to being asked to write about it.
Surely, he said, there must be others who can handle the assignment with understanding and insight it required. He didn't want to be looked upon as the columnist who filled the role of the angry black man, some sort of real-life version of Chris Rock's "Nat X," the militant black talk-show host in a Saturday Night Live skit. It wasn't the color of the skin of the man, as much as it was the conviction within his heart and mind. That's what made Ralph Wiley write the way he did about the controversial topics that he chose to tackle.
It frustrated him when no one else would tackle the truly important stories of sports, those with social undercurrents and political overtones. The kind of topics that will immediately divide a room, whether it's a locker room or cocktail party.
Anyone could have written about the controversy of Marshall Faulk's charitable givings, yet only Ralph Wiley could.
So like any good journalist with unmatched talent and a score to settle with an editor, Wiley tackled the assignment head on. Here is the introduction to his column under the headline, "Payback is a bitch":
- Sat up in Berkeley Cali last week, at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, had a Barney's Gourmet Hamburger with the trimmings and thought on a question I'd been asked: What do black athletes owe back to communities that spawned them? Like, I should know, right? Like I'm Miss Cleo, Jesse Jackson or somebody?
"You can have an opinion," piped in my swaggering company, Ms. Melody Moon. I swear to you, if she wasn't so sharp, I'd ...
Ralph had opinions. About life. About race. "About whatever wrong that needs to be writed," as he once wrote to me in an e-mail exchange. And together we worked on topics that struck a cord with what's wrong with sports. Not issues of black vs. white, but black and white. The difference may sound subtle, but Ralph was anything but subtle about it. The result were inspired columns that filled our special sections that celebrated Black History, Women's History and Asian Pacific American Heritage months in recent years. It was perhaps some of his best writing.
It was Ralph's job to think about ways to make you think. If only other journalists could think the way Ralph did. As he wrote in the first sentence of his final column for ESPN.com, the unexpected exclamation point of his life work: "All a man's got is the integrity of his work."
Ralph Wiley died of a heart attack on Sunday doing what he enjoyed most, watching the NBA Finals. At 52, he wasn't done writing those wrongs. Wasn't done making us think about what we take for granted and what we overlook. But life doesn't always work out the way it should, which is why the world will miss Ralph Wiley. He will be buried on Saturday in Washington, D.C., but let's hope that his spirit doesn't go to the grave with him.
Kevin Ball is a senior editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org