The Teachable Moment Offered by Sports This Week
Let’s Do the RIght Thing
It’s more than fitting that the opportunity to reflect on race and sports comes now. While most of us are celebrating Martin Luther King Day by stretching a work holiday into an extra-long weekend, Golfweek Magazine had the absolute insensitivity to feature a noose on the cover of their recent edition.
No controversy is wasted if we can learn something from it, better ourselves through it. This week, we have a stunning opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go to achieve even a hint of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream for us.
Commentator Kelly Tilghman was suspended for two weeks by the Golf Channel for her thoughtless comments on how to beat Tiger Woods (younger players, she said, would have “to lynch him in a back alley.”) Golfweek Magazine then decided to run a cover with a noose on it. They either (a) opportunistically sought to capitalize on a provocative issue with a symbol of racism; Or, (b) capitalize on the provocative issue with a symbol of racism, offer an opportunity for elevated debate while selling more magazines.
Kevin Hench of Fox Sports correctly points out that the cover art decision is not the result of a “rogue secessionist layout artist” but of many people deliberating and deciding to go with the noose.
Now, I want to see the best in people. I try (mostly) to give them the benefit of the doubt. These two incidents, the Tilghman comment and the cover decision, do provide important insights into what’s going on in race relations today. None of us is comfortable having this discussion, but pretending it’s not there will not make the problem go away.
Taking the opportunity presented by Tilghman’s comment, the noose cover of Golfweek, I offer the following:
1. Admission that we carry the baggage of a culture steeped in forms of institutionalized and tolerated racism. It doesn’t mean Kelly Tilghman is a bad person. Her comment shows she has some unexamined racist terms floating around in her vocabulary. She has (or had, we hope) some lack of awareness and sensitivity as to how such comments might be hurtful.
2. Agreement that these are bad things and declaration that we want to move beyond them. Even if Tiger Woods says he wasn’t offended and wants to move on, it’s not for him to say whether I should or shouldn’t be offended or hurt. Regardless of his color and the color lines he’s broken (listening Fuzzy?) Tiger shows he too, carries some unexamined racism. People outside the glamourous professional sports careers are daily being threatened, their lives being threatened by racist acts including nooses, including burning crosses.
3. Commitment to having uncomfortable discussions and taking unpopular actions to achieve progress on the issue of race. Many reporters, sports writers and just regular folks use the term “racial” rather than “racist” to discuss issues like the Tilghman comment. This is part of the problem and belies our discomfort with race. “Racial” is an objectively neutral term, racist is not. Racial is not accurate to describe many of the things it it is used to describe because people are afraid to use the more accurate “racist”.
While we think about race, sports, and Dr. Martin Luther King, another anniversary is here. LZ Granderson’s piece on hockey’s first black player Willie O’Ree. (Read it here.) That O’Ree entered the NHL 50 years ago today with the Bruins is emblematic of Boston’s dysfunctional relationship with the issue of race. We often epitomize the best and the worst of racism in sports. The now 72 year old O’Ree is spending his time these days getting more urban kids involved in sports through his work with the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. Still, it was only five years ago that the first NHL player to come up through the NHL’s Diversity programming efforts speaks volumes about how far we have yet to go.
Our Boston sports teams have had high profile racist episodes of the ugliest kind (Bill Russell’s house was broken into and excrement left on his bed.) Our teams and our home-grown sports legends have, conversely, also been some of the first real pioneers. Red Auerbach introduced the first black starting five in 1964 and had drafted the first African-American player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950. Brockton native Al Davis was the first NFL owner to hire a Latino for a head coaching position in 1979, Tom Flores. He did so before it was mandated by a league policy. Ten years later, he hired the NFL’s second African-American head coach Art Shell.
Boston Magazine ran an interesting article, Playing Through the Pain, by John Gonzalez that explores many athletes’ reluctance to play pro sports in Boston. The commentary in the online version is telling, as is the article itself.
As a person of color who’s lived in Boston since 1985 I will say that we have come very far, and we have so very far yet to go. We have no chance of making any progress if we cannot roll up our sleeves and get real, have honest discussions and work at it. Only by doing that will we honor a man who daily risked his life by risking a little discomfort.