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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Updated: December 1, 3:02 PM ET
Lapchick: Is racism gone?

By Richard Lapchick
Special to Page 2

Two years ago, the late Ralph Wiley wrote a Page 2 column that started this way:

When we deal with race and sport, like race and society, there is never an easy answer. We see signs of progress everywhere, yet incidents occur often enough to remind us that there are no clear answers to Ralph's questions.

By hiring Tyrone Willingham as its head football coach, Notre Dame -- the most storied program in college football -- might have cracked one of sports' toughest racial barriers. There have been a handful of other African-American head coaches in college football, but that job remains among the most segregated major coaching positions in sports.

The social significance of the hire could not be ignored. Few athletic directors have had the courage to hire the best head football coach available, irrespective of color. ADs have been better when it comes to basketball, but their record in football is scandalous.

Thus, the hiring of Willingham is part of the good news about race and sport in the present. Mississippi State's hiring of Sylvester Croom as the SEC's first African-American head football coach last December year was also historic, as was Georgia's hiring of Damon Evans as the SEC's first African-American AD.

Bob Johnson became the first African-American majority owner in a major professional league when he was awarded the new NBA franchise in Charlotte, and Arturo Moreno became the first Latino owner when he purchased the Anaheim Angels. Joe Dumars became the first African-American team president to win the NBA title.

There are African-American general managers in all the major pro sports now, and so many African-American NBA and college basketball coaches that we hardly notice hirings and firings any more. The NFL will begin the 2004 season with five African-American head coaches, while there are seven managers of color in Major League Baseball this summer.

The total of 24 managers/coaches of color in the NBA, NFL and MLB is the highest ever, as reported in the "2003 Racial and Gender Report Card" and nearly 23 percent of Division I men's college basketball coaches last season were African-American.

What does it mean?

Is racism gone?

What's it all about?

Some of the answers come from a look at attitudes.

We took serious note over the years when Dodgers vice-president Al Campanis said African-Americans don't have "the necessities" to be managers in baseball; when CBS' Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder improperly analyzed how African-Americans were "bred;" when Cincinnati Reds' owner Marge Schott talked about Adolph Hitler being good -- initially -- for Germany; when Braves' reliever John Rocker made several offensive comments in a Sports Illustrated interview.

And when, speaking in front of the Wisconsin legislature in 1998, Reggie White, the NFL star and ordained minister, said the U.S. "has gotten away from God" in part by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant." White went on to stereotype whites, Latinos and Asians.

While we can find many positive snapshots of racial harmony in our team sports, the last 16 months or so have seen a rash of offensive statement by sports figures. I don't think all of them are racist, but many people shuddered when they said what they said.

  • Paul Hornung called on his alma mater, Notre Dame, to lower its academic standards so that more African-American athletes might be admitted. Not only did it offend a large segment of the population, but it also ignored what has been happening at Notre Dame. Of the 68 scholarship players on Notre Dame's spring roster, 35 are African-American and 33 are white. Of the incoming freshmen, 12 are African-American and five are white. If no one leaves the program, 55 percent of Notre Dame's scholarship players next season will be African-American -- 11 percent higher than the national average. On top of that, Notre Dame's 82 percent graduation rate for African-American football players is 37 percent higher than the national average.

  • During March Madness, Bob Ryan said on ESPN that Vanderbilt is too white to get past the first round. The Commodores made it to the Sweet 16 -- with three African-American starters.

  • In June, Larry Bird said that the NBA needs more white superstars.

  • Rush Limbaugh's commentary on Donovan McNabb last football season led to a quick exit from ESPN.

  • Three players charged that Keith Cieplicki, the Syracuse women's basketball coach, made racist remarks.

  • Cubs manager Dusty Baker suggested that African-Americans and Latinos play better than whites in the heat.

  • Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau said the way to stop his former teammate, Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, is to feed him watermelon and fried chicken.

  • John Vanbiesbrouck, the former NHL goalie, made a racial slur about one of his African-American players while coaching a junior team in Ontario.

    And as more Asian athletes emerge in American sport, more slurs are seeping onto the nation's sports pages:

  • Golfer Jan Stephenson said that too many Asian players are hurting the LPGA tour.

  • Bill Parcells said his team will have some "Jap plays ... surprise things."

  • Bill Singer, a scout for the Mets, was fired after he spoke in gibberish, apparently to mock the Dodgers' assistant general manager, Kim Ng.

    Sex across the color line remained a controversy, too:

  • In December, the Palm Beach Post reported that six African-American NFL players received threatening letters warning them not to date white women.

  • The Associated Press chronicled a Columbus, Ohio, police report that Michelle Clarett, Maurice's mother, said Maurice had received a warning that African-American men should stay away from white women.

  • Soon after Kobe Bryant was charged with rape at a mountain resort in Eagle, Colorado, a white supremacist group spread pamphlets around Eagle saying that African-American men should not date white women.

    Gays haven't been left alone by sports figures, either:

  • Matt Millen, the Detroit Lions' president, made an anti-gay slur about Kansas City's Johnnie Morton.

  • Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey called Bill Parcells a "homo."

  • Seau used a homosexual slur at a Dolphins' banquet.

    The media gives extensive coverage to the numbing negative hiring numbers. Willingham and Croom will be two of only five African-American Division I head football coaches, three fewer than in 1998. About 10 percent of all Division I coaches are people of color. Less than three percent of Division I athletic directors are African-American; less than five percent are people of color. (That is also down from previous years.) And since only 11 percent of all assistant and associate ADs are people of color, the pipeline to the AD post is hardly full of potential for change.

    At the major pro level, Moreno and Johnson are the only Latino and African-American owners. There are only five African-American team presidents, and only three women hold that position. While 17 percent of NBA general managers were African-American last season, only six percent of the GMs in the NFL and MLB are African-American.

    So the answers to Ralph's profound questions are mixed. "What does it mean? Is racism gone? What's it all about?" When it comes to race, we see so many good things happening in sports. Many indicators, including the tremendous opportunities for athletes of color to compete on the playing fields, show the potential that sport has to be our most integrated workplace.

    We're better, but we're not yet right. The attitudes displayed by some of our leading sports figures, and the small percentages of people of color in decision-making positions in sport, tell us that.

    Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.