PREPARING to do a column about Jesse Jackson's charge of...

THEO LIPPMAN JR.

April 08, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

PREPARING to do a column about Jesse Jackson's charge of racism in baseball (for last Monday), I came upon several arguments to the effect that as the national pastime, baseball has an affirmative duty "to look like America."

That is, be diverse racially, in the front office as well as in the field. Good point. I used to make it myself a lot when writing about sports. One thing about diversity is that it undermines stereotypical thinking. Some people watching a basketball team with all or almost all black players and a white coach will consciously or unconsciously draw conclusions about racial characteristics that are overbroad, to say the least.

That's why I was such a Boston Celtics fan back when that team alone in the NBA had a black coach and mostly white players.

But on sober, mature reflection, it seems to me that an all-black basketball team, "looks like America" in the best sense. That is, you know that what you see are the five best people available for the positions. That's what America is supposed to stand for -- every individual judged as an individual and rewarded accordingly.

Supposed to stand for, but often doesn't. Discrimination and the pressure for diversity both often overcome it to the detriment of blacks and whites. (Bill Clinton's chief strategist, James Carville, recently explained how affirmative action for white basketball players worked in the South. You used 'em when you could afford to. The rule was, you played three blacks at a time at home, four on the road -- and five when you were behind.)

* * *

Years from now people will still be talking about the 1993 NCAA championship basketball game -- as a turning point. I mean the women's championship played last Sunday. In front of more than 16,000 fans, Sheryl Swoopes of Texas Tech put on such a show (scoring more points than any man ever had in a NCAA championship) that women's basketball may well have crossed that line that women's tennis crossed some years back -- and become a sport that is as interesting and popular as the men's version.

Years from now people will also be talking about a single moment in the men's championship. Michigan appeared to lose on a dumb, last-second mistake by its star, Chris Webber. Am I exaggerating about how long such memories linger? Well, Roy Riegels was an All-American football player and captain of his California team in the 1920s. In the 1929 Rose Bowl he cost his team the game by running with a fumble 69 yards in the wrong direction.

He died two weeks ago. Sixty-four years of a successful life later, and the headline on his obituary in The Sun was typical of all others I saw: " 'Wrong Way' Riegels dies in Calif. at 84."

Speaking of obituaries, the author of the most quoted and recognizable poem in history died last week. Can you name him?

Monday: It wasn't Hoagy Carmichael.

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