Notre Dame decision warrants legal action

December 02, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

THE BLACK COACHES Association, in a statement Tuesday afternoon about the latest travesty of sports and social justice, said the firing of Tyrone Willingham by Notre Dame "sends an alarming message to African-Americans dreaming of pursuing a career in coaching football on the collegiate level."

If the BCA is true to its statement and to its ideals, it needs to send an "an alarming message" of its own, to those who turned the clock on hiring back to the Jim Crow era, to the Notre Dames of the world and to the people and institutions who make them possible.

That statement: "See you in court."

Enough of talking around what happened to Willingham. It's discrimination, pure and simple. It might not be racism per se; no one can say for sure what is in the hearts of those who make decisions like the ones the cowards on Notre Dame's board of trustees made. But the result is the same, so who cares whether someone is too sensitive to that word?

Black coaches hardly ever get hired, they only get hired at the most bottom-of-the-barrel programs, and they get fired under circumstances where no previous white coach ever has been. Racism couldn't be defined any more clearly.

The current remedies aren't working. A year ago, the BCA announced that it would begin grading the hiring practices of every Division I-A and I-AA program with a coaching vacancy. The NCAA welcomed it, more or less, with open arms and restated its support for inclusive hiring. The first report card, for the 2003 offseason, came out in October, with only two of the 14 I-A schools that made a change rating lower than a C.

What did the college football world do? Breathed a sigh of relief, patted itself on the back, and commenced the carnage of the past week and a half. Of the five black head coaches from this season at 117 Division I-A schools, two were fired and one was forced to resign.

Ha, the powers-that-be might as well have said, you never said anything about our firing practices.

The usual arguments have been trotted out - why Willingham's termination was about something else besides his skin color, why the number of black coaches in I-A has shrunk from eight to two since 1997 (the only such group in sports that's actually going in reverse), why there are none in I-AA besides those at historically black colleges, why none is ever mentioned in connection with a high-profile opening, why the Bill Callahans and Steve Spurriers and Butch Davises and Buddy Teevenses rebound from failures at other places and get a soft landing at other programs.

All the arguments are wastes of oxygen and ink. The people making the decisions are white, almost without exception, from the school presidents (95 percent, according to a recent count by esteemed sports sociologist Richard Lapchick) to the athletic directors (93 percent) to the conference commissioners (all of them).

Taken individually, they probably are all decent men. Collectively, they're racist. And they're fostering these attitudes in, of all places, our institutions of higher learning. If the educators dedicated to instilling the noblest ideals of society are willing to overlook the blatant prejudice running rampant in their football programs, then they need to be held as accountable as those in the athletic departments.

A judge ought to be able to do that quite nicely.

Lapchick himself suggested this in a column on ESPN.com yesterday. He invoked the impact of Title IX for improving the lot of women in college sports, and wrote: "Perhaps we have reached this sad point in college sports where legal actions have to be considered to complement the effects of the Hiring Report Card. Something dramatic needs to happen if this incredible slap in the face of African-American coaches and student-athletes is to be rectified."

The "slap in the face" reference was not hyperbole. Willingham's firing might very well be the tipping point. Black students at Notre Dame gathered in front of a campus building the night of the firing to register their anger. They're not alone. Blacks around the country, including those who don't pay attention to college football, find the firing and the lame justifications for it to be an insult to their intelligence.

Maybe just the threat of class-action lawsuits will do the trick. The NFL will never cop to it, but it's hardly a coincidence that in September 2002, lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri issued a scathing report on the inequality of hiring in the league, mentioned the word "lawsuit" in the news conference introducing the report - and, poof, Marvin Lewis got hired in the offseason.

Floyd Keith, executive director of the BCA, made a point last year that if progress wasn't evident within three years of the first report, he couldn't rule out legal action. Now that regression is occurring, it's time to move up the timetable.

The narrow-minded clowns running these institutions can no longer receive the benefit of the doubt. They should receive subpoenas instead.

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