Thursday, December 18, 2008

Racism is still a factor

It's interesting that the United States recently elected its first African American president. On the surface it leads one to believe that this country has come a long way with regard to racism and prejudice. When you look closely at Barack Obama you realize that not only did he overcome the obstacle of race, but he also hurdled xenophobia and a significant generation gap.

In the world of sports the accomplishments of athletes and their significance are often overstated in the name of nostalgia. Sports writers are held to a much more relaxed standard and they tend to publish articles that wax philosophically about the importance of trivial events. Otherwise reprehensible people are often sanctified in print because they played through an injury or put familial obligations on the back burner in order to play an pivotal game. In many cases athletes are given credit for acting selflessly when their actions were entirely selfish.

There are some things that do matter. Jesse Owens shattering Hitler's notion of a superior Aryan race in the 1936 Olympics matters. It's ironic that Owens was an American hero at those games but when he came home he was often required to enter hotels and banquet halls through the service entrance, but his accomplishments at the games and the manner in which her carried himself broke down barriers.

It was the strides Owens made that opened doors for Jackie Robinson years later, although it's unfair to forget that black soldiers who served heroically in combat during World War II opened many doors as well. Robinson, however, was a catalyst and it was his ability to grasp the full scope of his responsibilities that opened the door for other black players.

The integration of sports was a major step in the right direction. People identify with athletes and as black players achieved excellence in athletic competition, a wary, white public began to accept them. It was a qualified acceptance but the integration of sports helped ease the integration of society.

Even though the NFL, or at least what later became the NFL, accepted black players and even had a black coach, Fritz Pollard, in the early 1920s, it was difficult for black players to make the transition into coaching and even more difficult for the few black assistant coaches in the league to advance into the head coaching position. Even into the 1980s there was a belief that black athletes lacked the intellectual capacity to be successful as starting quarterbacks and head coaches. Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory in 1987. Art Shell became the first African American head coach in the NFL since the NFL started using face masks.

Even though the NFL loves to claim that it was a bastion of racial harmony from its inception, the reality is that it left a lot to be desired. There was a difference in how black players were treated and compensated. Racial prejudice and bias influenced personnel decisions for years. People questioned why a league that relied so heavily on the performance of black athletes seemed to deny opportunities to African Americans behind the scenes. It was in the 1990s the NFL began addressing that issue and it's been only in the past 10 years we've seen something resembling equality. There's still work to be done, but the NFL has kicked a lot of doors open.

The same is not true in college football. Recently Auburn infuriated people around the league by offering its head coaching position to a former coordinator who had achieved nothing but failure as a head coach at Iowa State. Gene Chizik was successful as a defensive coordinator at Texas and Auburn but his 2 year stint at Iowa State resulted in a total of five wins. Moreover, he left Iowa State with four years remaining on his contract. So not only did Chizik fail to demonstrate success as a head coach, he also failed to demonstrate integrity.

Turner Gill is an African American head coach from Buffalo. In his three years at the helm Buffalo has steadily improved, winning the MAC Championship over unbeaten Ball State and earning a bowl bid this year. Not only has Gill proven his abilities to develop a program, Gill's background includes NFL experience. He was the Director of Player Development with the Green Bay Packers before he was offered the top job with the Buffalo Bulls.

There are plenty of reasons Auburn passed on Gill. His lack of familiarity with the SEC likely played a significant role. Similarly Chizik had demonstrated success at Auburn as the defensive coodinator for an unbeaten team a few years ago. So not only was Chizik familiar with the SEC, he also knew a lot about Auburn. It's hard to believe that race was the deciding factor in Chizik's hiring but you can bet it was an influencing factor.

Out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision (Division 1-a) programs only four have African American head coaches. Of those four programs only one (Miami) is a respected football power and it is in the middle of a rebuilding process after a number of problems forced out the previous coaching staff. Randy Shanon will probably be given plenty of time to repair the once storied Miami program but even if he is successful at restoring Miami to greatness the odds of other significant schools hiring black coaches are slim . When you look around the NCAA you just don't see any prominent assistant coaches who happen to be black. Several teams with older coaches are grooming heirs apparent and all of them are white.

The problem with the NCAA is that there really isn't a singular authority. The National Collegiate Athletics Association is a voluntary affiliation. The rules are established by the university presidents. In the NFL the teams are franchises that must conform to the mandates from the league office. So it's a lot easier for the NFL to identify and address perceived problems.
The NFL is also a money driven league. Coaches don't have to recruit players, nor do the players have to meet certain academic criteria. In college coaches have to play political games. They have to raise money, sell tickets and convince the best players to play for them. Yes, there are times when money changes hands. Some coaches work the secret booster circuit to acquire financial inducements for top players. Those who don't have to be really good at selling their program's ability to help players make it to the NFL. So it's a lot harder to hire the right guy. Often, bigger schools like Auburn prefer to hire a coach who knows how to schmooze the boosters over a guy who can coach. After all, a lot of Athletic Directors will tell you, the head coach is the CEO and the assistant coaches handle the Xs and Os.

Money talks. It always has. In the NFL the money is right there on the table. It's all about tickets and advertising. Winning solves all the problems. In college football it's not always so simple. Winning consistently doesn't solve problems so much as it keeps them on hold. Winning generates some revenue but the real money comes from checks signed by rich boosters. University presidents have to make sure that they keep the benefactors happy. Too often the decision to hire a coach isn't made by the athletic director or even the university president. Gene Chizik might have landed the Auburn job over Turner Gill because somebody with deep pockets wanted him bad enough to sign a six figure check. There aren't any rules that prohibit these things and until there are, the NCAA can't get a handle on why black coaches are passed over.

The problem with racism is that it isn't a singular entity. Racism is like a cockroach infestation. You can't eliminate it in one fell swoop, you have to go cupboard to cupboard. Even then, you can't be sure you've solved the problem. Everybody knows that if your house is dirty, the roaches are only going to come back. Nobody keeps a dirtier house than college football and until something is done to clean it up, racism isn't going away.

No comments: