Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Dr. King and Sports in the 21st Century
By Brian W. Carter (Staff Writer)
Published January 15, 2009

Most may not know this but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. does have a connection with sports.

In his younger days, he played baseball, basketball and wrestling and apparently he enjoyed watching football during his life

When King began his calling in the civil rights movement, it was a sports figure – Jackie Robinson – who served as one of his inspirations.

As we celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of the civil rights icon today as well his holiday on Monday, we can take a look at how his legacy and mission is playing out in the sports world.

Whether fans like it or not, sports have served as a great barometer of progress in the post civil-rights era. Black athletes have found success on the field and with endorsements but the lack of color in coaching and ownerships shows who still has the power.

King famously said that he hoped his children would be judged on the content of their character not skin color. 46 years after that speech, we see successful coaches who were given the opportunity based on their track record not skin color.

Since December, five African-Americans have been hired as head coaches in Division I football, the most recent being Yale hiring Jacksonville Jaguars defensive assistant Tom Williams on Jan. 8.

With eight Black coaches, that is an all-time high that was last reached in 1997 but it comes on the heels of the lowest number of coaches – four – in 15 years.

That noise you hear is the growing chorus of people who are openly questioning the hiring practices at these universities and it's a fitting tribute to King's legacy that this issue has taken center stage the last few winters.

He would be disappointed in the slow hirings of African-Americans in college football and at the same time, he would be even more disappointed in the graduation rates of African-Americans at these schools.

A recent report last year stated that only 59 percent of African-American college football players graduated in comparison to 76 percent of white players. I'd gather that with the rise of kids leaving early for the NBA draft, the numbers are almost similar for college basketball.

It's a problem that is not just at colleges but also high school where some athletes focus more on their future in sports than on their grades to ensure they'll qualify for school.

King once said, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically." This is something many lack when they reach the pros.

If we as citizens want to carry on his legacy, we have to make sure that we value education as well as athletics. Coaches, teachers and parents must continue playing a role in making kids well rounded on and off the field.

Another issue is the lack of diversity among positions of power in the sports, which almost looks as similar as it did in 1968 when King was killed.

Consider the fact that the majority of team owners and general managers in American professional sports are white. The majority of athletic directors in the NCAA are white. The majority of agents representing African-American players are white.

Southern California is almost an anomaly in that we have a Black athletic director (USC's Mike Garrett) and general manager (Angels GM Tony Reagins).

There are many possible explanations for this but one thing is clear – a true sign of Black progress in sports is not just players on the court, but also players off of it.

King would be proud that athletes have made great strides in not just becoming recognized for their feats but helping this country overcome some of its prejudices.

Yet he would also be disappointed in those who have contributed to them as well with their off-field behavior.

It is not enough to just get people in the front door and in the spotlight, but making sure they carry themselves in a way that represents the best of who they are.

So what would Dr. King say about the current sports landscape? He'd say a lot but it would be nothing different than what critics have said recently.

But one can dream that as we celebrate this holiday, sports will continue to evolve and carry out his legacy in more ways than just on the field.

Categories: Op-Ed

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