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Original Issue


In February 1978, Richard Lapchick was working late one evening in his office at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, where he was professor of political science, when two men with stockings pulled over their faces broke in and beat him badly enough to send him to the hospital with a concussion, multiple bruises and internal injuries and bleeding. They also scratched N-I-G-E-R on his abdomen. From their comments and threats of further violence it was evident that Lapchick was attacked because of his many years as a civil rights activist and his efforts to have the U.S. cancel its upcoming Davis Cup match with South Africa in Nashville, Tenn. Lapchick, along with many individuals and rights groups, had long advocated a boycott of South Africa in sports (at least) because of that country's policy of apartheid.

The ensuing weeks were a nightmare for Lapchick and his family. There were threats against him, his wife and two small children. The police investigation—if there was one—turned into a farce. It was made clear to him by the detective in charge that his story of the attack wasn't believed, that it was suspected he had staged the assault to create publicity for his cause. The affair did draw nationwide press and television attention and led to meetings, rallies and resolutions in support of antiapartheid action and the Lapchicks, but it eventually passed out of public view, with mixed results. The Davis Cup matches weren't canceled, but the protests discouraged attendance to the point that the event was a failure at a time when interest in tennis was burgeoning. All of this and much more about the aftermath of the attack make up the first half of Lapchick's new book, Broken Promises: Racism in American Sports (St. Martin's/Marek, $13.95). Given the material, it should make riveting reading, but, sadly, it doesn't. Lapchick simply isn't a good writer and Broken Promises suffers greatly because of it.

In the second half of the book, Lapchick offers a brief autobiography and then presents his thesis: that there is a "totality of racism" in American sports, which is a mirror of present-day American society. It may well be difficult for a man who has been savagely beaten merely for protesting apartheid to concede that progress has been made in race relations in America. Lapchick concedes nothing; he believes racism is more virulent than ever. It may also be risky for an ideologue to concede that any progress has been made, because readers may assume that all problems have been solved. In any case, Lapchick's text is a message almost without hope. There isn't a single mention of the men and women in sports—athletes, coaches, officials—working toward improving race relations, unless they are black or named Lapchick.

Lapchick regularly sets up straw men and knocks them down. Few Americans ever believed, for example, that integrating sports would eliminate racism in America, a conviction that Lapchick would have us believe was widespread. The hope was that it would help do so. If it hasn't been as effective in bringing about social change as some had hoped, one reason is that much of the rest of society still fails to offer significant opportunities for blacks.

Lapchick's zeal leads him into other difficulties. One is the case of Quintin Dailey at the University of San Francisco, which Lapchick describes as especially significant and "the most closely scrutinized [incident involving a black athlete] of all." He hasn't scrutinized it well himself. His account of the incident contains a hash of error and incorrect inference, beginning with his first sentence: "Dailey was accused of raping a white nursing student." He wasn't. Lapchick's perspective is that this was a case of a black man, a white woman and sex, and he draws conclusions about society's reaction that to him are inescapable.

Richard Lapchick's father, Joe, was a superior athlete, a good basketball coach (St. John's University, the N.Y. Knicks) and a decent, self-effacing man. Though he wasn't the great innovator in race relations that a loving son makes him out to be in this book, he and the son are themselves testimony to the values that sport can inspire in this area. Ironically, readers of Broken Promises will agree with Richard Lapchick's exposition only if they are already convinced there is no hope at all of racial equity.