Perhaps the one thing even Rush Limbaugh and Rasheed Wallace can
agree on is that race was not a forgotten topic this year.
In September, Limbaugh claimed Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb
received preferential media treatment because he is black--and a
week later Limbaugh was vastly more famous. He was also out of a
job. This month Wallace said that the NBA exploits its young
black players--those $10 million contracts notwithstanding--and
became the focus of outrage from commissioner David Stern, who
called his remarks "ignorant and an insult to all NBA players."
Wallace even drew criticism from former Georgetown coach John
Thompson, who told The New York Times, "Rasheed is attacking an
old scar where it doesn't exist." The angry Trail Blazer's
profanity-laced diatribe echoed this one truth: White boys still
run the NBA.
More telling than the reaction to Wallace's comments was the
distinct silence that followed the firing of three
African-American NBA coaches--Doc Rivers, Bill Cartwright and
Frank Johnson--in the first few weeks of the season. Not long
ago, given basketball's racist history, Jesse Jackson might have
organized a protest or at least called a press conference. But
not a soul was outraged because with 11 African-American head
coaches in the NBA at the start of the season, hirings are less
likely today to be seen in black or white.
So maybe 2003 wasn't all that bad. On Dec. 2, four months after
we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I
Have a Dream" oration, in which he spoke of Mississippi as
"sweltering with the heat of injustice," Mississippi State hired
Sylvester Croom as the first black head football coach in the
Southeastern Conference. Then last week Georgia brought in Damon
Evans as the conference's first black athletic director. Both
moves could break down barriers far beyond the SEC.
In the NFL, meanwhile, longtime assistant Marvin Lewis joined the
Bengals as the third active black head coach in the NFL--and
turned the moribund franchise around. And it may have been a
reaction to aggressive demands by lawyers Johnnie Cochran and
Cyrus Mehri when the NFL issued 10 guidelines to bolster its
year-old hiring policy, but the rules are strong. The policy says
that at least one person of color must be interviewed as a
candidate for each coaching vacancy. Each team must document
every interview (telephone interviews no longer count) and the
team's owner must be involved in interviews of all finalists.
Breaking the rules brings tough penalties, including fines and
the loss of draft picks. The Lions were hit with a $200,000 fine
when the team failed to interview a candidate of color before
choosing Steve Mariucci.
Elsewhere in sports, the almost all white NASCAR started Drive
for Diversity, an expanding program to find and feature drivers
and mechanics of color. It will develop drivers, who'll race in
the Dodge Weekly Series on tracks in the Southeast, and crew
members, who'll hit pits around the U.S. in the Craftsman Truck
What is clear of course is that real change never occurs in a
vacuum, nor without a push. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass,
power concedes nothing without a demand. There can be no racial
progress without pain. And if you're a black athlete, sometimes
it's hard to see the progress. Only a few weeks ago the FBI
revealed that some African-American NFL players have, for years,
received letters threatening them with death if they associate
with white women. "There's racism on the team. I've heard racist
remarks in Philly," said Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell, a
letter recipient. "It's real. Racism is there."
American sports reflect the best impulses of our nation and are
also a faithful barometer of our worst. As with Jackie Robinson
more than a half century ago, when sport overcomes its bias and
injustice, it helps the broader society to do the same. In that
light 2004 gives us good reason for hope.
The author of books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,
Dyson is a professor at Penn. The Michael Dyson Reader comes out
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
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--FORMS OF ENDEARMENT, PAGE 34