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Original Issue


SI gathered 10 prominent sports figures in Chicago recently for a discussion about what has happened to the black athlete since 1968

Rudy Washington, men's basketball coach at Drake University and executive director of the Black Coaches Association: The earlier series about the black athlete in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was extremely enlightening to me. I'd never seen it before, and I would go so far as to say that I don't think things have changed at all. In 23 years, we've lost some honesty, some candor, in the people that are dealing with the black athletes. But America is getting what it wants out of sports, and that's entertainment. That's basically what the black athlete has been providing for America—entertainment.

Bill Walton, former All-America and NBA All-Star center who is now an analyst for CBS Sports: I agree. Things haven't really changed. Black athletes certainly have more opportunities as participants, but for them to get to the decision-making level is quite a remarkable thing.

Willie Davis, Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end who is now a Los Angeles businessman: I've seen a lot of cosmetic changes. A lot of things seem to be better, but I get a feeling that underneath it all it's not. When you look at graduation rates and other things that indicate the quality of life for black athletes, it's a horror story. The one thing that has probably equalized is the economics of sport. I think black athletes today are getting paid commensurate with their entertainment value. But I don't see the access to the executive side improving.

Hank Aaron, baseball Hall of Famer and alltime home run leader who is now senior vice-president of the Atlanta Braves: Sure, a lot of us are making good money, but I have to agree with Willie. I don't see us making any progress.

Buck Williams, forward for the Portland Trail Blazers: Until three years ago I didn't believe that someone would actually hire me to be a general manager. Now, because of the efforts of people like Hank, I believe it will be easier for me to do that.

Washington: Buck, what makes you think you can be a general manager?

Williams: I look at Hank and what he's done, I look at Willis Reed, the general manager for the New Jersey Nets, I look at Don Chaney, the coach of the Houston Rockets, and I see a number of blacks who have been able to get decision-making jobs. We're not there yet, but because of them, I think we're making baby steps in the right direction.

Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, at Northeastern University: Clearly there have been black individuals who have risen to top-level positions. But the attitudes of society haven't changed. I was optimistic in the '70s that there would be change, but racism in our society is now probably at a peak. My greatest concern is for the black athlete who doesn't make it to the pros. Forty-three percent of black high school athletes believe they're going to play pro sports, according to a Lou Harris survey last year. And at what price? The U.S. Department of Education reports that 25 to 30 percent of high school senior football and basketball players leave high school functionally illiterate. What have we prepared them to do?

Larry Hawkins, founder of the Institute for Athletics and Education, and girls' volleyball coach at Hyde Park Career Academy, a public school in Chicago: It seems to me that if we are addressing the black athlete's plight, we have to look at what's happening to the young people who are in the developmental stages. We have fewer and fewer opportunities for young blacks to get into sport, to run track or to play basketball or volleyball across the country. Why? Because people at the top of sports talk about the subject as if the bottom wasn't there.

Stephanie Hightower-Leftwich, 1980 U.S. Olympic hurdler and world-record holder who is now director of communications for the Ohio Department of Mental Health: We as black people have forgotten how some people struggled for us to get where we are today. That's especially true of our younger athletes. They don't understand the struggle of being a black person in this society anymore, so they automatically think that sport is a way to not have to deal with that.

Davis: You're right. What I try to do is to fear-motivate my son. I tell him, "Boy, do you know how hard it was, growing up in Texarkana?" He looks at me and says, "Yeah, Dad." I know in his heart he does not. How can I tell him it's tough? We have seen a generation that really does not understand the struggle that the Jackie Robinsons and the Larry Dobys and people like them went through.

Anita DeFrantz, 1976 U.S. Olympic oarswoman and one of two U.S. members of the International Olympic Committee: Is it because it's not talked about?

Williams: I happened to see Clyde Frazier one day in New York, and I walked over to him and said, "Hey, man, I just want to thank you, because you made it a lot easier for me." He looked at me in disbelief. No one says, "This is the reason why I'm able to enjoy the kind of salary that I have."

Washington: That kind of knowledge was passed to me by black coaches like John Thompson, John Chaney, George Raveling. Here I am, 40 years old, and I hadn't realized what Hank had gone through, not until Thompson and others grabbed me and said, "Hey, boy, let me tell you what's going on." Now I try to pass it on to my son and to my athletes. Yet as you talk to them, as Willie says, they look at you as if you're nuts. That's because they can't put their hand on it. They can't feel it. One of the things we don't have is the political activists we had in the '60s. Back then, there were athletes who protested. These kids just hang out. They don't want to get involved in those issues.

Williams: Players are making a lot of money these days, but I don't think there is the commitment to reach back to their communities. That really disturbs me. It seems we're content with what we have. Maybe I don't do as much as I would like to do, but I try to do what I can.

SI: Are we saying that the black athletes at the high end of the salary scale have sold out?

Walton: What has Michael Jordan ever said, other than how much money he makes? What has Bo Jackson ever said about any issue that has relevance to people's daily lives?

C. Vivian Stringer, women's basketball coach at Iowa: Suburban kids will accept Michael as long as he doesn't speak to the issues. Am I wrong in saying that?

Aaron: I think if he has a platform, he needs to speak. A lot of black athletes, as soon as they reach a certain status, no longer associate with the black community. Down in places like Buttermilk Bottom [a low-income area in Atlanta], the kids never see the black athletes. I think that when you have a platform, you shouldn't be afraid to say something, regardless of whether someone says that they're not going to put you on a Wheaties box because of it. I think that Michael needs to speak out, and I think he'll find himself even stronger if he does.

Hightower-Leftwich: So it's an issue of control. The people whose products you endorse control you, no matter who you are—even if you're Michael Jordan. If Michael Jordan were a brain surgeon, he could speak about whatever subject he chose to address. But Michael Jordan the black athlete can't. Why?

Stringer: A lot of people believe these athletes are making too much money, that's why. If they're going to make that kind of money, they must keep their image and everything else about them—and that includes speaking out—intact.

Washington: Now, wait a minute. Michael does have a social conscience. I've sat in meetings with him during the Nike shoe controversy of last year [when Operation PUSH organized a boycott of the company, claiming it wasn't doing enough to help blacks], and while he did not come out publicly, he and Spike Lee and John Thompson, who are all paid very well by Nike, resolved that situation. I don't think that every person has to come out publicly, because a lot of times people of power can do things behind the scenes.

DeFrantz: I resent being told that I have to learn about issues from people who aren't experts. With all respect to Michael Jordan—and I happen to know that he and his family care deeply about a whole lot of things—should he be telling us what's going on in the Gulf? Why is it that athletes have to be spokespersons on issues?

Walton: I think everybody should speak up on issues. I don't think you have to be an expert to talk about something. I mean, you have your feelings, you have your thoughts and you have your opinions.

Washington: And I would also venture that if Buck had tried to do the same things that Bill had done in college, with the protests and such, Buck would not be sitting here talking about becoming a general manager. The mentality is that if you speak out, the penalties are going to be so harsh against you that it will affect your entire livelihood.

Williams: No question about it. A lot of black athletes feel that if they speak out, their shoulders had better be strong enough to carry the burden. I idolize Jack Johnson. I talk about him all the time, because he was the first black heavyweight champ. And what I like most about him is the fact that he was his own man. He was not going to let anyone tell him what his place was in society. Anyone who speaks up today is labeled. People say you have an "attitude." Players today are afraid to get that label. A lot of them say things in the locker room that they would never, ever say publicly.

Walton: Today's athlete doesn't have to be antagonistic, he doesn't have to say things that create a conflict, but I think he does need to say, "Hey, this is wrong, and this is right."

Aaron: We owe it to our children not to sit back and say, "I'm worried that if I say something I'm not going to get a Nike contract." If Michael is going around scared to say something, he shouldn't be able to look himself in the mirror. If we show ourselves to our kids as the type of people who say, "I can't say anything because I'm afraid I can't get this contract," we're going to have another generation of kids growing up doing the same thing. And we can't afford to do that.

SI: Why is sport being asked to fix society's problems?

Davis: Because sport has always been the sunshine to a better way of life. Even today, society looks to sport for much of what it anticipates about race relations. That's why I'm concerned that there seems to be this growing resentment by some to what is occurring in sports, because I think there are a lot of people who still depend on sports for that good example.

SI: Is the current resentment aimed solely at black athletes who are making huge sums of money?

Hightower-Leftwich: I think it's a racial issue, I really do.

Davis: I absolutely agree. I hear people saying, "You know, we can't pay schoolteachers enough to teach these black kids, and yet they're paying the athletes this kind of money." Well, that's clearly racist. They don't talk about white executives' making a lot of money.

DeFrantz: There's a lot of media attention about how black basketball players don't deserve to be in college. They're in college and they're going to be pulling down this big money in the pros, but they're illiterate. Not everybody who goes to college on an athletic scholarship falls into a class of not being able to do college work. And one wonders what the NCAA is up to with some of these new rules and what are the results of the new rules.

Lapchick: If Prop 48 [the NCAA rule, which went into effect in 1986, setting certain academic minimums for prospective student-athletes] had been in use in 1981, 69 percent of all black males would have been ineligible. But 54 percent of those athletes eventually graduated. Clearly they had the skills all along, they just had to be developed.

SI: Do any of you encourage children to go into sports?

Aaron: Well, it's not the only thing that I talk to kids about. I want them to understand that though sports may be very important, they should look beyond sports, especially black kids.

Walton: I encourage my kids and all kids to participate in sports for fun and for health. And only for that. Also to have a lot of dreams. Not just pro sports. I had that dream and I got to live it, but I also dreamed of being an engineer. I wanted to be a scientist and a lawyer. I'm still dreaming.

Hightower-Leftwich: It's not a matter of discouraging them but of pointing out the reality that all the glamour you see is not the entire package. I think we have to paint a realistic picture.

Washington: My son will be a senior in high school next year. He's all-city, and he says he wants to be Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. Lord knows I've tried to instill some things in him. But I can't get through to him. As a parent, I know what's going on, but I can't touch him. I am scared to death, because I know how crazy it will get as he gets recruited, I know all that stuff, and...forgive me if I get emotional, but it's my son.... I can't reach him. I can't. And...I'm sorry.... I know what's out there, and yet I can't prepare him at all for what he's about to face. I get mad at myself, I get mad at his coach, I get mad at his mom, I get mad at everybody. Sometimes I want to reach out and hug him and hold him and try to give him the benefit of my experience, and yet I'm afraid as hell that I've lost him. And this is what I do for a living! And I can't reach him. And...I'm sorry.... I mean, it's just...this is my son we're talking about.

Aaron: I had the same experience with my son. I released him [from the Braves]. I brought him in the office and told him he had to do something else. He wanted to play baseball. Just because I was a baseball player, he thought that he was going to play. And I saw him going no higher than A ball. So I told him, "You've got two choices. Either I can keep you here in A ball or you can go back to college, get your degree, come back out and have a family." So he thought for a while, and I said, "While you're thinking, here are your release papers." It was hard, but I had to make the decision for him. He wasn't able to make that decision because he wanted to play baseball, and I just saw him floundering around in the minor leagues for the rest of his life.

Washington: And now? Does he resent you for what happened?

Aaron: At first he did. He went through some traumatic times. But two years after that—he's a schoolteacher now, in Milwaukee—he came up to me and hugged me and kissed me and told me, "Thanks for making that decision, because I couldn't have made it." I can understand what you're saying, Rudy, because I thought I had lost my son. But sometimes they come around.

Stringer: Parents ought to be resentful about what's being done through the media with athletes. I have three children myself, and being in sports, I would love for them to be good. But my children also are looking to become the next Michael Jordan. Society has robbed them of what they should be looking at, what they're likely to be successful in. All of us who influence athletes try to show them reality, to help them understand that education comes first. But it's hard to deal with when every day they're seeing Bo Jackson on television.

SI: On the issue of Prop 48, should everyone have the opportunity to go to college no matter what he or she has achieved at the high school level? Or should there be a cutoff so that some kids can't go because they have not reached certain standards?

Hawkins: There probably is a cutoff, but no one knows what it is. The people who wrote Proposition 48 don't know what it is. Of course, universities are able to educate rocks, if they choose to. So anyone should go, in my view, who wants to go.

Davis: I wrestled with this Prop 48 dilemma when I was on the NCAA select committee [on rules]. Black colleges were immediately against it, which made me feel bad. But I read an article in the L.A. Times that convinced me that some standard should be in place. Whether you're black or white, eventually you've got to go out in the world and compete. Maybe the Prop 48 standard will eventually impact all the way through the system. The sad part is that it will penalize some kids in the interim. But over the long run I believe that there has to be a standard, because everything in our lives is measured by some kind of standard, be it in athletics or in the marketplace. So until black athletes, or student-athletes, come to grips with the fact that the rules have changed, then I think they're always going to be the marginal ones, and I don't think they have to be.

Stringer: I've had athletes who were valedictorians of their class struggle to get C's at Iowa. Is that their fault? They're working hard, they're going to the tutors, they're doing all those things. But they have been labeled. Everybody knows if a student is a Prop 48. And that's terrible. I wonder, if the NCAA is committed to education, why doesn't it guarantee the student-athletes five years to graduate?

Washington: I'm against Prop 48, but the fundamental problem is the home life, the black community, because in no other race is sport such a dominant factor every day as it is in the black community.

Stringer: I don't think that professors are willing to accept that the black athlete really wants to learn. Now, when they first arrive at college, most of the kids just want to play, then maybe after a year or two they realize that education is important. But that's all part of the growing process, and we have to stay with that. We've got to do a much better job of staying with them, giving them direction and giving them the support systems, instead of just assuming that they just want to play and that's it.

Lapchick: We've had more than 2,000 athletes come back into a degree-completion program that we're involved in at Northeastern with 70-plus universities around the country, and that number includes 702 current pro athletes. We've found that no matter where the athletes came from—but it's particularly true if they're black—they had parents who went to their football and basketball games but not to parent-teacher conferences. The parents talked to their children about how to improve their jump shots, but not about how to raise their grade point averages. Guidance counselors steered them to one course instead of another course to keep them eligible. And coaches never told them what the odds were against either getting that college scholarship or making the pros. So, at a very early age, kids got subtle messages from the people that they love most that sports are more important than academics. When these athletes first came into our program, they were almost basket cases. As soon as they started to get involved with people who told them they could do the work, they believed. We did a program on ethics in college sports at Loyola Marymount, and the first question from the audience was, Who's to blame for poor academic performance? Well, one Loyola basketball player got up and looked at the woman who asked the question and said—very gently—"You're to blame." He said, "I was here for four years, and you never asked me anything besides how I played. I was an economics major. You never asked me what I thought about the world economy. I'm black. You never asked me what I thought about what's going on in South Africa in terms of race relations in the U.S.—I was just a ballplayer for you." That is how it is in college.

SI: Bill, did coaches treat players of different races differently?

Walton: Yes. When a black player was struggling, the coach or the general manager would come up to me and say, "Do you think he's on drugs?" If a white player was struggling, the coach would come up and say, "Is something wrong? Is his family all right?"

Washington: It has to do with compatibility and comfort. It's not wrong for me as a black coach to feel comfortable with my black players and a little uncomfortable with the whites. It works in reverse order as well. I think white coaches are more comfortable with white players.

Aaron: There's also a problem in baseball with the coaches. Some of them don't know how to relate to some of the blacks. If someone in a Cadillac picks up a black player, the first thing the coach may say is, "Is he on drugs?" This is not unusual.

Stringer: A coach from Kansas told me that he had to leave because he couldn't take it anymore. He was told by the alumni that he had to play a certain number of white players.

SI: Let's talk about athletes moving into the front offices of their respective sports.

Aaron: I still think that baseball needs to improve in a lot of areas, not just those involving athletes. For example, I've been going to the winter baseball meetings for the last, oh, 17 years, and I don't know of any black team doctors that we have coming down to share in those meetings. I don't know of any black vendors that have come down to share in those meetings. I don't know of any black clubhouse guys coming down to share in those meetings. For about 10 years I saw nothing but white faces. Now, after I raised a little holy hell for a while, the commissioner decided that he was going to do something and stood up in the winter meetings and told us, "I see a lot of progress." I said, "Where's the progress?" He said, "Don't you see all these women we just hired?" I said, "Wait a minute, that's O.K., but you have to tell me what else you have done. Show me some black managers. Show me some black team doctors." That's where baseball has its trouble. All of these things that have been denied blacks all this time.

SI: During the 1968 series, Larry Doby was quoted as saying: "You know those junkyards along the highways in Jersey? Well, they have scrap heaps for athletes, most of them black. Black athletes are cattle. They're raised, fed, sold and killed."

Davis: One of the black athletes' problems, in all honesty, is that they fail to plan and position themselves to be more than participants. It just doesn't happen. I get a sense that a guy like Buck is saying, "Hey, I think I could become a general manager because along the way I'm going to start planning and developing a relationship with management. When I'm finished, these people are going to know that this is what I want to do."

Aaron: Baseball is different. It's a clique.

Walton: It's not just baseball.

SI: How will the white power structure finally be broken down?

Davis: I say it will happen first when there's some economic advantage to hiring blacks, or when there is pressure that threatens the bottom line.

DeFrantz: Or, simply, when some black owners get together and decide to do it.

Aaron: I think the answer's going to come from the pros themselves. They're going to have to put themselves on the line if they want to see a change.

Hawkins: Maybe the players can do this. But that's more fanciful to me than the idea that parents will make a difference. If parents become sophisticated about this issue, then the students will be more sophisticated about what kinds of questions to ask when they're being recruited—about minority faculty, books in the library, how much they have to study.

Lapchick: I think it's even beyond that, though. The only time there's been real, pronounced pressure is when the civil rights groups got on the case after Al Campanis made his racist statements in 1987, but they dropped the pressure. They've got to get back into the game.

SI: What must be done in the future to correct things?

Stringer: I think that we need to point out that everyone shares in the burden and the responsibility for helping our youth survive and become productive citizens. No group can exclude itself, not the parents, the guidance counselors, the teachers or the coaches. We're talking about saving our people.

DeFrantz: I would abolish the NCAA. It's created and perpetuated a lot of these problems. It is the "owner" at the collegiate level. It tells the kids that they can become campus idols, but they can only have $25 in their pocket. It tells them that they're not to be seen with boosters, and yet boosters constantly give them money. It has taken opportunities away from women, it has taken opportunities away from parents to control their kids, it's taken opportunities away from universities. Abolish it.

Aaron: If the athlete feels scared or frightened of what may happen to him if he makes any kind of statement, he should first think about the great civil rights leaders. I'm speaking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and some of the other people who took it upon themselves to take a risk. If it had not been for the Jackie Robinsons, the Dr. Kings and some of the other civil rights leaders, we would not even have the mechanism to do some of the things that we want to do today. I played against Jackie the last three years of his career and I know how this man suffered. I know some of the things he went through. The struggle was tough. I think we as black people lose our history. We've got to let our young kids know that they're where they are today because somebody suffered.

Hawkins: If we look at tight city situations, where people are poor, that black community is suffering terribly. There's another community, the white one, where people are not so poor. That community is not suffering so badly. The problem, of course, is we're all tied to that suffering community, and we're going to sink or swim with it. And the difference between '68 and now is that our kids are not as competent in reading, writing and arithmetic as they were. That bodes badly. The question is whether they'll be able to handle jobs that require those skills. I think the problem that's a definite danger to all of us right now is illiteracy.

Lapchick: I think the sooner we learn that sexism isn't the problem just of women, and that racism isn't the problem just of black people, we're going to be able to move forward.

Hightower-Leftwich: We need to start preparing black athletes for what is coming when they're finished with their careers—reality.

Washington: There has to be a commitment from the parents, the teachers, the coaches, the community. It has to be a total effort. I don't know if there's anything we can do with the high school kids today. Or even the junior high schoolers. Maybe the elementary kids. I don't know. We may have to write off a generation. If we don't do something drastic pretty soon and make some people accountable, we'll all be here 20 years from now saying the same things. And that's scary.