History sometimes has a strange way of playing out. As we get into Black History Month, much attention is placed, understandably, on events in the civil rights movement and the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis, one of the centers of protest activities in the South during the movement. Arguably the saddest event in the civil rights era happened there when Martin Luther King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in April 1968.
Rev. Jesse Jackson was there as a close aid to Dr. King. Nearly 40 years later, he has been a constant in the civil rights landscape.
Last week, Jackson was talking about the historic lack of opportunities for African-Americans to coach in the NFL and in college football. That conversation, of course, was sparked by Sunday night's landmark Super Bowl, which represented a championship game between two teams coached by African-Americans for only the second time in the history of major professional or college sport. (The first was the 1975 NBA Finals when Al Attles' Golden State team defeated K.C. Jones' Washington Bullets.)
Jackson talks about how we have come to know the rules resulting in equal opportunity for African-American athletes to compete inside the lines on the playing fields. However, he consistently has remarked that the world of sport is not as clear off the field when it comes to hiring coaches, general managers and athletic directors. Like many others, the reverend hopes Sunday's game will help change that.
Jackson was a witness to the era during which African-Americans began to integrate predominantly white institutions; and by the 1970s, he was an activist in many of that drama's major happenings. In 1972, Memphis was back in the national spotlight when it played host to the Liberty Bowl between Georgia Tech and Iowa State, and Jackson was there again.
The NAACP had set up picket lines outside the stadium in protest of Tech first-year coach Bill Fulcher's suspending starting quarterback Eddie McAshan, the first African-American scholarship athlete at Georgia Tech. Up to the suspension, McAshan had passed for 32 career touchdowns, which still leaves him fourth-best in Tech history 34 years later. His five TD passes against Rice in 1972 set a school record, and he is seventh on the Yellow Jackets' career passing list -- all in spite of the fact that he played only three years. He'd helped lead Georgia Tech to a 22-9-1 record and two bowl appearances until Fulcher suspended him.
Before the game that day, five of McAshan's teammates were on the picket line to protest the suspension, but eventually went into the stadium to play wearing black armbands. McAshan sat outside in a white limo, next to Jackson.
The suspension ostensibly grew out of a disagreement over a request by McAshan for four extra tickets for the season-finale game against archrival Georgia so his family could attend. When Fulcher denied the request, McAshan skipped a practice; and in response, Fulcher suspended his quarterback for the next two games. This was an era in which a handful of black athletes protested against actions by what they saw as the white establishment. McAshan believed there was a double standard being applied to African-American athletes.
The suspension ended McAshan's college career. He entered the NFL draft the next spring.
Breaking barriers was part of McAshan's football career. He not only was the first black scholarship athlete at Georgia Tech but also the first African-American quarterback for a major southeastern university. Today, nearly 50 percent of college players and nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African-American, but few of them are aware of what athletes like McAshan went through to pave their way. He was the first African-American to play quarterback for a predominantly white Florida high school. A courageous coach at Gainesville High made that move in 1966 and paid the price with crosses burning in his front yard.
Today, big-time college coaches are escorted onto the field, surrounded by security. Back then, a different kind of security was needed when McAshan came onto the field. They were there to keep him safe from racist fans. During his college career, McAshan's tires were slashed and his dorm room burned in a suspicious fire. As Tech's team bus drove across the Auburn campus at a game, McAshan saw himself hanging from a tree in effigy; and at first, guards at Auburn's stadium refused to allow him to enter the players' entrance because they didn't believe a southern university would have black players.
In the limousine at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis that day, sitting next to Jackson, McAshan knew his career at Georgia Tech was finished. A few months later, he entered the draft, where he was taken in the 17th round by the New England Patriots, and he had a short, injury-riddled pro career in the NFL and the World Football League. His football dreams shattered, he showed his strength of character by completing his degree in industrial management at Georgia Tech in 1979.
As changes came about in the South, history twisted itself into a different ending. Eddie McAshan was inducted into the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame in 1995. And this year, Major League Baseball will hold the first ever Civil Rights Game, an ESPN-televised exhibition between the Cardinals and the Indians on March 31 in Memphis.
I hope they invite Eddie McAshan to throw out the first pitch.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport. Horacio Ruiz, a DeVos graduate assistant, contributed to this article.