New — and needed — history of sports, race, and the idea of progress
The institution credited with the greatest progress on racial equality, other than perhaps the military, is sports.
There have been enormous advances at the college and professional level. That’s seen in a new book by a premier sports reporter, John Feinstein.
In 1970 there were no Black quarterbacks in the National Football League. Today most of the top young quarterbacks are Black; two of the last three years the NFL’s most valuable player has been a Black quarterback. The 1970 University of Alabama football team was all white; today more than two-thirds of the roster are Black.
But Feinstein’s book, “Raise a Fist, Take a Knee,” captures how painful this progress has been — and how much racial inequity persists. The subtitle is “Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports.”
This is Feinstein’s 44th book, a number of them best sellers; it’s his most important.
The title bookends two compelling cases of race.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, on the victory stand, raised their fists in a black power salute to protest racial injustice. They were sent home by the cowardly International Olympic Committee, which at an earlier Berlin Olympics was fine with the Nazi salute. Carlos and Smith, Feinstein writes, were savaged by commentators like Brent Musburger. Years later, their courage was recognized.
The other end, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, and President Donald Trump demanded pro football “get that son of a bitch off the field” and told Kaepernick to find another country. The NFL capitulated, blackballing Kaepernick.
“Trump got exactly what he wanted,” Feinstein writes, “more proof to his base that Black athletes were ‘unpatriotic’ even though the protests never had anything to do with patriotism.”
Between the bookends, Feinstein tells the story of the Denver Broncos Melvin Briscoe, the first starting Black quarterback in 1968. After a season good enough to be runner-up for rookie of the year, he was dumped. The unstated rationale was Blacks weren’t smart enough to be signal callers.
There are countless other stories.
As recently as 2018, almost all teams passed on drafting Lamar Jackson, a Heisman trophy All-American in college who insisted he would only play quarterback. In the last pick of the first round, he was taken by the Baltimore Ravens, whose general manager was Black. By Jackson’s second year he was a unanimous selection as the Most Valuable Player in pro football.
While 75 percent of pro-football players are Black, there are only three coaches. Qualified Black assistant coaches get passed over for top jobs.
Feinstein cites the experience of a successful Black coach, Jim Caldwell, who coached the lowly Detroit Lions from 2014 to 2017. He won 36 games, losing 28, the best mark since the early 1970s. He was fired. Since then, the Lions have won only 14 of 59 games.
Basketball — even more of a Black sport – has a better record, though with a painful path. Great college coaches, like Georgetown’s John Thompson or Kentucky’s Tubby Smith, won national titles but faced racial challenges along the way.
The National Basketball Association is the most racially conscious of the pro leagues: 13 of the 30 teams have Black coaches, and there are ten general managers. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, without authority, banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the game after he made blatantly racist remarks.
Even well-known and well-off Black coaches tell of being stopped by the cops just for the act of driving a nice car. Feinstein says every one of scores of Black interviewees spoke of DWB: Driving While Black. They have the talk with their sons — and grandsons — on what to expect. When basketball star and social activist LeBron James spoke out, a Fox News commentator told him to “shut up and dribble.”
Feinstein has a fascinating conversation with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who’s white, the greatest college basketball coach, a West Point graduate and has been a Republican for most of his life. With his successful teams and the professionals he coached in the Olympics — “Zillionaires” — Krzyzewski said he thought, “These guys have all had it pretty good in terms of dealing with race. I missed the fact that that racial abuse is a fact of life for almost anyone who is Black and is something they carry with them their entire lives.”
Too many of us whites cheer for great Black players, salve our conscience, talk about all the progress — and wonder why there are grievances.
It comes home in Feinstein’s conversations with the late John Thompson, the iconic Hall of Fame Georgetown basketball coach and longtime member of the Nike board. In some ways similar — strong, exceptionally smart, caring and with a penchant for being difficult — Feinstein and the coach had a tempestuous relationship over the years. But Thompson was an important inspiration for this book. It’s dedicated to him.
In one of their last conversations, Thompson told Feinstein: “I get pretty damn sick and tired of being told I should be grateful for all that I have and all that I was allowed to accomplish. Allowed?”
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.