Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sports world demonstrates a dramatic racial bias.

There are some white people who like to think that racism isn't as much of a problem as it is an excuse. With so many regulations enacted on behalf of minorities, most companies won't risk the penalties associated with imposing racial bias. In some cases, these people would argue, the well-intentioned goals of affirmative action actually impose racism on whites..

That's true to a degree, affirmative action has certainly helped minorities gain access to government jobs and certain educational opportunities, and whether or not it's fair or even beneficial can be debated, but racism is still a very ugly reality in this supposedly great nation of ours. It could be worse and not all that long ago it was. Much worse. But that doesn't mean we should ignore a glaring problem.

We should be cautious in drawing parallels between the real world and the sporting world. Life in the real world is nothing like life in the sporting world. Personalities are different and the tasks at hand rarely compare in spite of so many executives struggling to liken the mundane world of day to day business to the exciting world of athletic competition.

When it comes to race relations in this country, however, the sporting world has been a wonderful study of where attitudes lay. Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in baseball, which was the most popular sport in the country at the time. He traveled a rocky road but he kept his head down and eventually won the hearts of fans. He showed whites that there wasn't anything to fear and inspired blacks to rise up and fight racial injustice. More black players followed and their success made it easier for white coaches and athletic administrators to embrace black athletes in other sports.

It wasn't easy, and it took a while for every sport to become fully integrated. It wasn't that long ago that the so-called experts firmly believed that black athletes lacked the mental ability to be successful quarterbacks in the NFL and fans are quick to villainize a black athlete who steps out of line. However, we have reached a point where athletes are not judged by the color of their skin, but rather the ability they bring to the playing field. Nobody hesitates at the prospect of drafting a black quarterback anymore and nobody thinks twice about signing a black athlete to a lucrative endorsement contract.

However, the bias is still there. This year 10 NFL teams found themselves looking for new head coaches. As of this moment all but one of those teams has hired their new coach with the Oakland Raiders supposedly holding out for Steelers' assistant coach Ken Whisenhunt. If they make that hire, which seems likely, that will conclude the hiring frenzy with all but one of the hires being white. The lone black coach given a job this year hardly counts as a breakthrough hire as Herm Edwards simply transferred from the Jets to the Chiefs. No new black coaches made the final cut.

The final numbers really aren't that bad at first glance. Of the 32 NFL teams six (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Arizona, Kansas City, Chicago and Indianapolis) feature black head coaches but in a league where the majority of the players are black and have been for over 30 years 19% doesn't cut it. Not when most NFL coaches have at least a few years of playing experience under their belts.

The NFL, however, is painfully aware of the paucity of black coaches and is proactive in developing programs that help bridge that gap. That is not the case in the NCAA. Which might explain the availability of black NFL coaching candidates. There are 117 division 1-a programs but only three black head coaches. What's even more alarming is that there are only about a dozen black assistant coaches who have attained the rank of coordinator, which is typically the stepping stone to a head coaching position. Unlike the NFL, the NCAA is not working hard to change that. The NCAA simply doesn't have any authority to oversee the hiring practices of member universities.

The problem is not one of malicious racial bias. There is no reason to believe that athletic directors and college presidents are conspiring to deny black coaches access to employment at the collegiate level. More likely the problem is an issue of latent racial bias or simply a matter of racial loyalty. In some rare cases there might be a calculated decision to exclude black candidates. Universities depend on contributions from community leaders as well as wealthy alumni and, particularly in the deep south and the Midwest, the people holding those purse strings might harbor a little bias and unduly influence the university in selecting a white candidate. But by and large, this is not standard practice. The name of the game is winning. Period.

Some believe this sort of unintentional bias is what influenced Notre Dame to break tradition and send Ty Willingham packing before he had fulfilled his five year contract. Notre Dame supporters like to think that the unexpected move had more to do with a sense of urgency in making room for hot coaching prospect, Urban Meyer, but Meyer seemed to have absolutely no interest in the Notre Dame job. Ty Willingham was the first Notre Dame coach to be fired for performance before he had completed his first five years on the job. Hopefully Ty's skin color was only coincidental but you have to wonder. Bob Davie did a pretty lousy job at Notre Dame and he got five years. By contrast Ty Willingham seemed to be doing a better job than his predecessor and he was given his walking papers.

Notre Dame isn't alone. When Ohio State fired John Cooper the candidates interviewed as his replacement were all white. Ohio State seems to be quite equal opportunity with former Heisman hero Archie Griffin holding a key role in the athletic department and Ohio State did hire an African American athletic director to replace the departing Andy Geiger, but you'd still figure that Ohio State would have interviewed a black coaching candidate or two. Alabama stirred up a hornets nest when they passed on hiring Sylvester Croom as their head coach in favor of the less qualified Mike Shula, but it's hard to believe that Alabama would have allowed race to be the deciding factor.

It's staggering to think about it. In sports race is no longer an issue on the playing field. The Heisman trophy is awarded to the best college football player in a given year and since Ernie Davis shattered the color barrier back in 1961, 24 of the next 44 winners were black. When Rush Limbaugh took a cowardly back door jab at the significance Donovan McNabb's race played in his popularity, fans expressed their outrage and the obese blowhard was forced to resign immediately or suffer the humiliation of being physically thrown out of the ESPN studio by Tommy Jackson.

That's why it's impossible to believe that the dearth of black head coaches in college and professional football is a calculated decision. I simply can't imagine that anybody conscientiously chooses to exclude a black candidate from contention. The racial bias being applied is not malicious.

If the person making a decision is white, he or she is automatically going to feel more of a kinship with another white person and if everything else is equal the white candidate is going to get the job over the black candidate. It happens in sports and it also happens in everyday life.

In spite of laws prohibiting discrimination African Americans are denied employment, promotions and recognition for accomplishments for no other reason than race, even though the people responsible are completely unaware they are discriminating. In some cases the racial bias is blatant and clearly a violation of civil rights legislation, but in most the racial bias is all but impossible to prove.

That's the case in the NCAA and the NFL. There's no documentation that substantiates any racial bias, but at the end of the day when you crunch the numbers you have no other explanation. White people still call the shots and black people get left out in the cold.

So how can we rectify this? How can you possibly address racial bias when it is not intentionally applied? The solution lies within individual honor. Whites, particularly those in positions of power, should force themselves to examine race whenever it is a possibility. Whether you're hiring you're next football coach or an assistant sales manager, you have to stop and ask yourself what you would do if every candidate was the same color. If you have a reservation about a black candidate you have to consider if you would have that reservation if he or she happened to be white.

People do it all the time. The black applicant is a job hopper while the white guy is ambitious. The female prospect is emotional while the male counterpart is passionate. If we are ever going to find true racial harmony in this country we're going to have to be honest with ourselves. Until we do we've got problems and very little to be proud of. The NFL and NCAA simply reveal the ugly truth. The question is whether or not we will accept it and take action to correct the problem.

No comments: