We're still trying to solve racial problem

January 22, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Check the news, and there is progress. On the surface, there is always progress.

Michael Jordan reportedly could become a 20 percent owner of the Washington Wizards, making him the largest African-American shareholder in an NBA franchise.

Tampa Bay's Shaun King and Tennessee's Steve McNair could become the first pair of African- American quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl, and Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy could become the first African-American to coach in one.

Progress. Undeniable progress.

But check the news again.

John Rocker. Jesse Jackson. A damning new study on the racial demographics of NCAA athletic departments.

How far have we come, really?

Will we ever get where we need to go?

Sports reflects society, and racism is the national disease. It needs to be confronted the way addictions are confronted. By owning up to the problem. Then by trying to overcome it, each and every day.

No one wants to hear that, of course. People would rather bury their heads, point their fingers, apply their senseless Band-Aids.

Meanwhile, the arguments become so twisted, they're not even the right arguments anymore.

The furor over Rocker's comments to Sports Illustrated is one example. Jackson's defense of Ray Rhodes is another. And in a Jan. 10 interview on WBAL Radio, Baltimore Colts legend John Unitas engaged in his form of racial stereotyping, attributing the increase of celebratory dances in the NFL to "the black influence."

Unitas, 66, did not back down from his statement yesterday, saying, "It's just their way of doing things, that's all."

Well, it's not Peter Boulware's way of doing things. It wasn't Barry Sanders' or Walter Payton's way of doing things. It wasn't Lenny Moore's way of doing things, and he was Unitas' teammate.

More than anything, the celebrations reflect a change in times. Football is no longer just sport; it's entertainment. Players strike cartoonish poses, and fans hooked on video games and ESPN cheer them wildly.

Kansas City receiver Elmo Wright, an African-American, was believed to be the first player to perform a touchdown dance. And it probably can be quantified that more blacks are penalized for excessive celebration than whites.

But how does that explain former New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau?

Or Atlanta's excitable Tim Dwight?

The danger is in stereotyping, in believing that every member of a racial, ethnic or religious group shares the same characteristics and convictions.

It's politically correct to say the right thing. It's more difficult to think the right thing, but every religion on earth preaches tolerance.

Rocker's views probably are shared by more people than you think. He just wasn't smart enough to keep his bigotry to himself.

What would have happened to an average Joe who had made public statements as offensive as Rocker's? He would have been fired.

Rocker isn't an average Joe -- he's a left-handed closer who throws 95 mph. He likely will be suspended by commissioner Bud Selig. But bless the players' union, he's not about to lose his job.

If the Atlanta Braves released Rocker, they would be in violation of the major-league baseball labor agreement, which prohibits roster moves for disciplinary reasons. They could always trade Rocker, but no team would take a chance on him before Selig acted.

What is Selig waiting for? The results of Rocker's psychiatric evaluations.

As if Freud invented psychoanalysis to cure prejudice, or instill intelligence into empty minds.

Two questions, Bud:

Since MLB is on a sensitivity kick, how about ordering Rocker's team to adopt a new nickname rather than continuing to offend Native Americans?

And, since MLB is on a mental health kick, how about ordering psychiatric evaluations for a certain Orioles right fielder who made obscene gestures at fans who heckled him last season?

Some white fans probably suspect it's because Albert Belle is black. Well, Belle has been suspended six times. The reason he didn't get the Rocker treatment is that MLB needed a quick response to its latest bad boy. And the psychiatric evaluations bought Selig time.

The best solution now would be for Selig to do nothing, forcing the Braves to deal with the problem, most likely through a trade, and Rocker to deal with the animosity he would face from teammates, opponents and fans.

Hey, John, ever hear of Charles Darwin?

Only the strong survive.

The same theory applies to NFL head coaches, which is why Jackson's protest of Rhodes' firing was so ridiculous. Rhodes, an African-American, finished 8-8 with Green Bay -- the same record that got Pete Carroll and Chan Gailey, two white coaches, fired in New England and Dallas.

If there's a "victim," it's Gailey, who made the playoffs but couldn't please owner Jerry Jones. Yet, Jackson jumped to his own stereotypical conclusions -- if a black coach was fired, it must have been racism.

What Jackson should realize is that Rhodes was treated just like a recycled white coach when he was hired, and just like any failed white coach when he was dismissed.

Believe it or not, that's progress.

If Jackson wants to pick a better fight, he should target the NCAA.

Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, could provide him with all the statistical information he needs.

Haney, who is white, researched the athletic departments of the 18 university presidents who comprise the Division I Board of Directors. The 17 schools besides South Carolina State -- a historically black school -- had 103 employees in core management positions. Only three were black.

So much for our institutions of higher learning setting an example.

Organizations like the NCAA can roll out a dozen other studies that defend their hiring practices.

But again, it's only surface progress, if you want to consider it progress at all.

The issue is rather simple, really:

You fight the disease, or you succumb.

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