Black History Month

Thursday, February 28
Is Jesse Jackson out of his league?

By Greg Garber

When Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf fired head coach Ray Rhodes the day after the 1999 season ended, the Rev. Jesse Jackson thought he caught a whiff of racial injustice.

Jesse Jackson
With two runs at the presidency now behind him, Jesse Jackson renewed his involvement in the cause for change in sports.
The cold, black-and-white facts of the matter suggested otherwise. Wolf, who is white, wound up eating three years of a contract that would pay Rhodes, an African-American, $3 million. Rhodes, who had been hired by Wolf after going 9-22-1 his final two seasons in Philadelphia, was 8-8 with the Packers. The players -- and the coaching staff -- were, by most accounts, largely undisciplined and apparently unwilling to play hard for Rhodes.

Nevertheless, Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition called for meetings with the Packers and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the need for a level playing field.

"Ten yards for everybody, 100 yards for everybody," proclaimed Jackson, once a quarterback at North Carolina A&T. "I take this realm of athletic leadership seriously because I know they, in fact, are leaders who can transform America."

And so Wolf, who had taken a bold chance on Rhodes in the first place, given him an 11-5 team and the latitude to hire two black coordinators (an NFL first), was left to explain away the race card.

"Would a white coach have been dismissed with an 8-8 record?" one of Jackson's people asked.

Under similar circumstances? Quite frankly, yes.

Football people, both black and white, rallied behind the Packers with widespread criticism of Jackson. They viewed his attack as self-defeating. They understood, of course, that the best way to avoid censure from the Rev. Jackson was to never hire a black coach in the first place.

"I think Jesse Jackson's intervention concerning Ray Rhodes is absurd," said commentator Dan Dierdorf. "Ron Wolf must have become a racist in a hurry; it was just a year ago he hired Rhodes."

When the cameras and microphones withdrew, Jackson and PUSH quietly jumped off the Rhodes bandwagon. Still, it served as another example of Jackson's sometimes random and ill-considered forays into the athletic arena. It underlined his almost pathological thirst for publicity and, at the same time, his curiously impotent presence in sport -- if only in contrast to his impressive global political impact.

How could a man who sat down and conversed with the PLO's Yasir Arafat, who negotiated for three captured American soldiers with Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic and freed a U.S. Navy pilot from Syria, who twice ran credible campaigns to become President of the United States, a man who has led hundreds and hundreds of marches, rallies, sit-ins, church services, protests and boycotts be so wrong about a football coach?

Ten yards for everybody, 100 yards for everybody. I take this realm of athletic leadership seriously because I know they, in fact, are leaders who can transform America.
Jesse Jackson on the residual effect of change in sports
Dr. Harry Edwards, the respected sociologist, calls Jackson the "Don Quixote of Sports," who jousts at the sports establishment and its racial traditions but remains "undaunted by his failure to significantly impact either."

Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Sports Business Management Program at University of Central Florida and a leading authority on diversity in sports, acknowledges Jackson's failures.

"In the case of Ray Rhodes, the criticism clearly was wrong place, wrong time," Lapchick said. "Maybe he could receive criticism for trying to do too much, but at the same time most people don't do anything at all. I would rather him err on the side of doing too much than not enough."

This is a familiar theme among Jackson's supporters.

"Rev. Jackson has the guts and the credibility to stand up for others," said agent Ray Anderson, who represents black football coaches Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards, Tyrone Willingham, Marvin Lewis and Dennis Green. "He has done tremendous things to promote the presence of African-Americans in professional and amateur sport.

"It's better to have somebody at the plate trying to get hits for the cause than twiddling his thumbs on the bench. Reverend Jackson is taking those cuts at the plate."

Leon Carter is the sports editor of the New York Daily News, with a daily circulation approaching 750,000, one of the largest newspapers in America.

"In the sports arena, people just don't understand it when Jesse hops on sports issues," Carter said. "They tend to tune him out for whatever reason, and they may be wrong. But at least Jesse has the balls to stand up and say something when he thinks it's wrong."

John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach, considers Jackson a friend. Thompson believes his propensity for publicity that one critic termed "ambulance chasing" is really part of a larger strategy.

"If Jesse was invisible, he'd be insignificant," Thompson said. "It's a political ploy to make change he has to be on the big stages. I've heard people say he just wants to get attention for himself. That's bull. Obviously, he won't start a revolution or pose the threat of a riot or inspire fear if no one knows who he is.

"There is that element in society that wants to do a number on Jesse, just for convenience. Unfortunately, some blacks chime in with them."

Master of opportunity
Nathan Webb, an African-American lawyer, was listening to a webcast of ESPN Radio's "Tony Kornheiser Show" on Jan. 4 when he heard a "black voice" impression making satirical remarks during a commercial break about the Minnesota Vikings' deposed head coach, Dennis Green.

Jesse Jackson
In 1988, CBS fired Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder for saying blacks were "bred" to be better athletes than whites, but Jesse Jackson said he was more concerned with a lack of black coaches in professional and college sports.
"Brother can't get a chance in Minneapolis," the voice said. "The Man is trying to keep me down. It was the devil white racist ... it was the white kicker's fault."

Webb was offended and alerted Jackson, who in turn wrote a letter to the Walt Disney Company, ESPN's corporate parent, calling for an investigation and a meeting with Disney chairman Michael Eisner. "Such comments, if indeed verified, are certainly tasteless, without merit, dripping with racism, and must be dealt with severely," Jackson wrote.

Even when ESPN apologized and it was determined that the voice belonged to show engineer and regular on-air contributor Kevin Stanfield, an African-American, Jackson persisted. "It doesn't matter who said it," Jackson said. "It's wrong."

There was no meeting with Eisner and Stanfield was not disciplined, severely or otherwise.

True to his egalitarian platform, Jackson does not discriminate when it comes to perceived injustices. Since emerging as a force with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the early 1970s and forming PUSH -- People United to Save Humanity -- Jackson has relentlessly worked to improve conditions for minorities.

Like Forrest Gump, when something momentous happens, he always seems to be there. Here is Jackson, master of the photo opportunity, with his great role model, Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis the day before he was assassinated in the spring of 1968. There he is, at the podium during the 1988 Democratic National Convention, shaking hands with Rosa Parks, the Montgomery, Ala., woman who would not yield her bus seat to a white man back in 1955. Here he is eulogizing the late boxer Sugar Ray Robinson in Los Angeles, 1989. And again 11 years later doing the same at Walter Payton's funeral in Chicago.

Early on, Jackson discovered the value of rocking the institutional boat. He has been consistently unafraid to put his personal freedom on the line for the cause, whatever it is. He was arrested in 1960 when he tried to use a whites-only public library in Greenville, S.C., and again in 1963 when he led mass demonstrations against segregated cafeterias and theaters in Greensboro, N.C. Arrests followed in 1969 (at the University of Illinois, when he demonstrated for more jobs for blacks), 1971 (protesting allegedly unfair hiring practices by a grocery chain in New York) and 1985 (after an anti-Apartheid demonstration outside the South African embassy in Washington).

In recent years, Jackson has attempted to include the world of sports in his sphere of influence. In 1987 he and other civil rights leaders, unhappy over the lack of leadership opportunities for minorities, organized a boycott of Major League Baseball. That prompted commissioner Peter Ueberroth to hire Edwards to study the issue.

Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson holds the tree branch from which a black teenager was found hanging from a belt in his yard in Kokomo, Miss.
Since then, he has:

  • Thrust himself into collective bargaining negotiations between the NFL and its players in 1987.
  • Picketed baseball's 1993 All-Star game to protest a lack of an affirmative action plan.
  • Helped to organize the search in 1994 for minority investors in the Oakland A's.
  • Attempted to force the NFL into a position on the state of Georgia's controversial state flag in 1994.
  • Traveled to Indonesia in 1996 to protest alleged unfair labor practices in shoe manufacturing facilities of Nike and Reebok.

    It was in 1993 that Jackson met Charles Farrell at a conference in Washington. Eventually he asked Farrell to come work for him at PUSH. Farrell had a master's degree from Northwestern University and had worked as a reporter and editor for the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Today, Farrell is director of Rainbow Sports, a division of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street project. The organization is dedicated to increasing opportunities for minorities in the burgeoning field of athletics.

    "Kids in the black community grow up thinking of becoming Michael Jordan, but the reality is they have a better chance of walking on the moon," Farrell said. "The sports industry is a $250 billion global industry and African-Americans are locked out of the level playing field.

    "It isn't all about Michael Jordan and men running up and down the court in shorts or catching a football. This is a business. It involves advertising, marketing, journalism and public relations. It's a vast, vast thing. The education in the community is more about being a player in those areas."

    The struggle continues
    An important part of the Rainbow Sports agenda involves improving the minority numbers in the highly visible leadership positions in Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA. That struggle hasn't been going so well.

    The NBA, which has the largest population of black players at approximately 78 percent, has the best minority representation in its front offices. There are nine black head coaches and a similar number of black general managers among 29 teams.

    Herman Edwards
    Herman Edwards was an assistant under Tony Dungy for five years in Tampa Bay before becoming the New York Jets' head coach last season.
    Earlier this month, Major League Baseball appointed Omar Minaya as the general manager of the lame-duck Montreal franchise, making him the first Hispanic GM in history. Still, he and Ken Williams of the White Sox are the only minorities filling that position among 30 teams in a sport where more than half the players are minorities. The Expos will be managed by Frank Robinson, who was the first black manager in league history, with Cleveland in 1975. He is one of seven minority managers in the game today.

    When Green and Tony Dungy were fired in Minnesota and Tampa Bay after this past season, the Jets' Herman Edwards was left as the NFL's only black head coach. Dungy was eventually hired by the Indianapolis Colts, becoming only the third black coach in the league's previous 45 hirings. This, in a league in which 72 percent of the players are black. For the record, there are only two black coaches among 32 teams, the lowest percentage (6.25) since 1991, when Art Shell was the league's only black coach.

    And, as Edwards pointed out last month after he guided the Jets to the playoffs in his first year, he, Dungy and Green collectively have produced 13 playoff berths in 16 seasons of coaching. "That's a staggering statistic," Edwards said.

    In the college football ranks, where 50 percent of the athletes are black and more than 57 percent are minorities, only five of the 115 Division 1-A programs had a black coach last year.

    Predictably, Jackson has been vocal. At Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta he said the poor numbers were the result of "a culture driven by white supremacists."

    "There is one standard for choosing coaches in the National Football League," Jackson insisted, "and another standard for choosing players."

    Farrell said things have gone backward.

    "The frustrating thing is that the changes are incremental," he said. "It just happens. We think the progress will get there. Listen, at least Marvin Lewis got an interview (in Tampa). But you lose one coach and that's a third of the black coaches. That's heavy to think about."

    Farrell did point to gains in the assistant coaching ranks and the numbers bear him out. In 1981 there were seven black assistant coaches in the NFL. By 2000, the number was 127.

    Cooler heads can settle political disputes, but that doesn't usually work in sports. That is often the time Rev. Jackson offers his services. If the opportunity to come in came at a less confrontational time, you might see better results. When issues become polarized, Jesse Jackson has been stonewalled.
    Mike Huyghue, former NFL team executive and currently a sports agent
    Some believe that Jackson's presence on the scene can actually work against achieving better minority numbers.

    "The (NFL) -- and any league -- is in general loathe to bring outsiders in when they're in conflict to resolve an issue," said Mike Huyghue, the former senior vice president of football operations of the Jacksonville Jaguars and now a sports agent. "Cooler heads can settle political disputes, but that doesn't usually work in sports. That is often the time Rev. Jackson offers his services.

    "If the opportunity to come in came at a less confrontational time, you might see better results. When issues become polarized, Jesse Jackson has been stonewalled."

    In listing the accomplishments of Rainbow Sports, Farrell said he is proudest of negotiating corporate sponsorship for a black-owned NASCAR team, Miller Racing Group, fronted by a black driver, Morty Buckles, last year. That was a first for NASCAR.

    Jackson also got NASCAR to form a diversity council, develop an internship program at historically black colleges and take part in a program that will expose minority youths in Philadelphia to auto racing.

    Farrell also cites a series of seminars in major cities like Chicago, New York, Washington and Atlanta with local sports teams.

    "Teams purchase millions in goods and services," Farrell said. "Even to the seemingly minute contract for toilet paper in the locker room. We stumbled on this when we got a contract for a black drycleaner for the Chicago White Sox in 1993.

    "We bring in the people who do the purchasing and match them with minority vendors. We've had a lot of success. This is easy, because if I can sell you a hot dog for two cents cheaper, it doesn't matter what color I am."

    A closed system
    Much was made of the recent hiring of Tyrone Willingham by Notre Dame, even though he was chosen after it was discovered George O'Leary had lied about his resume. Jesse Jackson, never one to shy from hyperbole, compared Willingham's ascension to the prestigious head coaching position to Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line in 1947.

    Tyrone Willingham
    Jesse Jackson credits the influence of his Rainbow Sports organization with pressuring Notre Dame into hiring Tyrone Willingham as its football coach.
    "This is a victory for America," Jackson said. "This is a victory for fairness. Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed or fail. Notre Dame chose less than the best and they got embarrassed."

    Jackson took some credit for the hire, saying that former Notre Dame player Dave Duerson, a member of Notre Dame's board of trustees and the Rainbow Sports Task Force, had actively pushed Willingham for the job.

    When Ray Anderson, Willingham's agent, was asked Tuesday what kind of impact Jackson's Rainbow Sports had in his client's hiring, he paused.

    "When someone of Rev. Jackson's stature speaks up, it draws attention," said Anderson, who had just negotiated a new contract for the Jets' Edwards. "I, for one, know Tyrone deserved the job but I'd also say that those positive comments had to have been of some help in some minds."

    A large degree of Jackson's difficulty in affecting change at the highest levels of pro and college sports, according to Farrell, comes from the closed nature of the front offices involved.

    "Owners are owners of their own industry," Farrell said. "They do what they want. They are generally surrounded by white males and so the examples you have to choose from are white males.

    Change on the sidelines
    College football

    Of 115 Division I-A college football programs, four have black head coaches:

  • Fitz Hill, San Jose State
  • Tony Samuel, New Mexico State
  • Bobby Williams, Michigan State
  • Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame

    National Football League

    Of 32 NFL teams, only two have black head coaches:

  • Tony Dungy, Indianapolis Colts
  • Herm Edwards, New York Jets
  • "As we're making these strides, it's getting a little bit easier to get in the door. It's frustrating because it's so incremental. We're saying diversity is good for business. If they want to expand the audience, find new money, this is how you do it. They're wising up, but there are still some good old boys out there. It's been a white male domain forever, and they want to keep it a white male domain forever -- that's what we're fighting."

    Part of Jackson's problem is that his world view, his passion for a level playing field, doesn't resonate with today's elite black athlete.

    "The reason why Jesse doesn't resonate is today's athlete doesn't have the same perspective as the athletes of Jesse's generation," said Carter of the New York Daily News. "Today's athletes are more interested in contract money and endorsements for shoes and T-shirts. It's SportsCenter, as opposed to speaking against the inequities of the sport.

    "I guarantee you if you asked the starting five at the (NBA) All-Star Game to tell you what Jackie Robinson meant to sports, I'd be stunned if you got an intelligent answer. That's because from the moment they got drafted and became stars and were able to live in places their parents couldn't dream of, they couldn't connect with what Jesse's trying to say."

    John Thompson, who now broadcasts NBA games for TNT and is a host of a daily radio talk show for WTEM in Washington, agrees.

    "A lot of today's athletes have reaped the benefits of the Jesses and the Jim Browns and the Bill Russells," Thompson said. "They didn't have the luxury of just being a performer on the field. In order for our causes to be heard, they had to be said by popular and visible people. Those athletes took that burden on. Today's athlete rarely takes that responsibility."

    I wish I could have been in all the settings where people have said, 'You don't want us to call Rev. Jackson now, do you?' I've heard a number of people say that with respect to athletics, people who have used this man as leverage.
    John Thompson, former Georgetown basketball coach
    Said Farrell: "The athletes, to be very honest, that's not where their interests lie. They're trying to make as much money in as short a time as possible. I've been told by some people that agents will say, 'Don't involve yourself with Jesse Jackson -- he's too controversial.' "

    Another obstacle is the composition of the media itself. When Carter attends the annual Associated Press Sports Editors convention, he says it's uncommon when there are more than five African-American editors in attendance.

    "The people who are in charge of certain sports sections may not be as sensitive as they should be," Carter said.

    Ultimately, Thompson said, Jackson's impact cannot be quantified by front-office numbers or any other statistics, for that matter.

    "I wish I could have been in all the settings where people have said, 'You don't want us to call Rev. Jackson now, do you?' I've heard a number of people say that with respect to athletics, people who have used this man as leverage," Thompson said.

    "I think sometimes people expect all of us to be like the rest of us. Our own blacks do that. We don't want to see someone else at the Lincoln Memorial talking about the mountaintop. There's not but one Martin Luther King. But Jesse Jackson is more flamboyant than that. He likes nice things, sure, but there's nothing wrong with that.

    "I appreciate and am grateful for what he has done to expedite things for the cause. I truly respect what he has done, in his way. Jesse Jackson, he has been leverage for a lot of us."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for

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