The most famous series of stories ever published in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED began with these words in the July 1, 1968, issue: "Sport I has long been comfortable in its pride at being one of the few areas of American society in which the Negro has found opportunity—and equality. But has sport in America deceived itself? Is its liberality a myth, its tolerance a deceit?"
One didn't have to read very far to get the answer. The title of the series made it clear:" "The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story." The shame was documented through five consecutive issues of the magazine by one of SI's star writers of the time, Jack Olsen. The first article in the series was titled "The Cruel Deception" and slapped readers immediately with a quote from the athletic director of the University of Texas at El Paso, who had an unusually large number of black athletes on his teams and who actually thought he was being quite fair-minded when he said, "In general, the nigger athlete is a little hungrier, and we have been blessed with having some real outstanding ones. We think they've done a lot for us, and we think we've done a lot for them."
Olsen went on to write: "The clichè that sports has been good to the Negro has been accepted by black and white, liberal and conservative, intellectual and redneck.... But Negro athletes do not agree. Almost to a man, they are dissatisfied, disgruntled and disillusioned. Black collegiate athletes say they are dehumanized, exploited and discarded.... Black professional athletes say they are underpaid, shunted into certain stereotyped positions and treated like sub-humans by Paleolithic coaches who regard them as watermelon-eating idiots."
That's how blacks saw their situation in the summer of '68. But what of the summer of '91? What has changed in the last 23 years? Beginning in this issue and continuing in future weeks, SI returns to the subject of the black athlete with a variety of stories. This week's articles include a survey by the polling firm of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman of the views of pro athletes on racial matters (page 44); a roundtable discussion with 10 athletes and sports leaders (page 48); an examination of how white America has embraced black superstars like Michael Jordan (page 54), and the first installment of a two-part examination of an explosive incident at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and its aftermath (page 60).
August 4, 1991
A central issue in the 1968 series was the exploitation of blacks by college athletic programs. The extent of that exploitation was eloquently—and angrily—delineated by Harry Edwards, then an assistant professor of sociology at San Jose State who was supporting a black boycott of that year's Olympics: "Black students aren't given athletic scholarships for the purpose of education. Blacks are brought in to perform.... Their primary responsibility is to the athletic department, and at the end of four years they wind up with no degree, no job and no references."
Today Edwards is a professor of sociology at the University of California and a consultant on racial affairs to Major League Baseball, the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors. His views on college sports are even fiercer than before. "It's worse than ever," he says. "Because there is so much more money at stake and so much more pressure to get that money, kids are targeted earlier, cut off from reality earlier, immersed in the competition for the big prizes earlier. Black society is a coconspirator in this. It peddles its kids to the highest bidder. When the kids get to a college, the college is supposed to do in four years what those kids' families and communities haven't done in 18 years."
Of course, in 1968 most southern college sports programs were lily-white. That, at least, has changed, and today the presence of black athletes—and black stars—is simply taken for granted at colleges in every section of the country. This is good, but a recent NCAA survey of the graduation rates for black athletes is not so encouraging: Of athletes who entered college in the 1984-85 academic year, a mere 26.6% of blacks graduated compared with 52.2% of whites. Congressman Ed Towns (D., N.Y.) spoke angrily about the situation last week during House subcommittee hearings on athletes' graduation rates: "I am outraged that blacks comprise only seven percent of all college students while black athletes make up 56 percent of college basketball teams and 37 percent of football teams. It's time we highlighted the fact that it is simply no longer acceptable for athletes—and particularly black athletes—to be used up as sports commodities and then discarded when their eligibility is over."
Another issue that arose in 1968 was that of "racial stereotypes" in sport, a nicely antiseptic term that translated into one of the ugliest of all white racist assumptions: that blacks are too stupid, too lacking in the so-called necessities to be qualified to fill either management jobs in sports or the "thinking" positions on teams—quarterback, middle linebacker, pitcher, catcher, point guard, etc.
Well there has been improvement in this area. In 1968 black quarterbacks were almost never seen except on black-college teams. In recent seasons Auburn, Georgia, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and USC—as well as last year's co-national champions, Georgia Tech and Colorado—have all started black quarterbacks.
There were also eight black quarterbacks on NFL rosters at the end of the 1990 season, and two of them, Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers and Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, were the starters in the '90 Pro Bowl. In 1988, another black signal-caller, Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins, was the MVP of Super Bowl XXII. Still, the NFL's record with black quarterbacks seems less impressive than it could be: Last season, according to figures compiled by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, 61% of the league's 1,300-plus players were black. The eight black quarterbacks constituted 9.8% of the league's 82 signal-callers, but as colleges turn out more black quarterbacks, the NFL numbers should continue growing.
As for blacks in management, the NFL had a dismal record in 1968. There were no black owners, no general managers, no head coaches. Today the league still has no black owners or general managers, and there is but one black among its 28 head coaches. However, commissioner Paul Tagliabue has made some encouraging moves in the last year: He has hired blacks to serve as the league's supervisor of officials, executive vice-president of labor relations, director of information for the NFC, and director of player programs, as well as employing one black drug adviser.
In the NBA, with its huge percentage of black players—72%, according to the Northeastern figures—the I great majority of the heroes and "thinkers" are black. Not surprisingly, this has helped lead to a color-blind national admiration society for outstanding and personable players like Jordan, Magic Johnson and David Robinson. The NBA also has far more blacks in management than football or baseball has. At the end of the 1990-91 season, the league had one black co-owner, in Denver, five black head coaches and five black general managers.
Last week the Center for the Study of Sport released its annual report card on minority hiring in pro sports management. It gave the NBA an A and the NFL a C+. Major League Baseball got a C. Even though the 1989 appointment of Bill White as president of the National League made him the highest-ranking black executive in pro sports, racial progress has been stagnant in the front offices of baseball. It has no black owners, no black general managers and just two black field managers. Richard Lapchick, director of the center, says, "It is very disheartening to see how little progress has been made."
There are also fewer blacks holding baseball's so-called "thinking" positions, particularly among the pitchers and catchers. There are only 12 black pitchers in the majors and no black catchers. What's going on? As it turns out, this may be less a result of bigotry than of baseball's fading image in the eyes of black children. Former Dodger catcher John Roseboro (now a minor league instructor for the team) says, "Football and basketball are the glamour sports in the ghettos now. Minorities are aiming at them instead of baseball. Little Leagues aren't that good in the ghettos anymore. Everything's too expensive-bats, balls, uniforms, fixing the fields." Major League Baseball has been alarmed enough by this black talent drain that it supports a program called RBI (Revive Baseball in Inner Cities) which is intended to put the game back into the minds—and dreams—of urban kids in Los Angeles and St. Louis.
As for those dreams.... One of the sadder sections of the 1968 series dealt with black athletes who became victims of their own dreams. Olsen wrote of "the countless Negroes who obviously had abundant will and determination to succeed, but who dedicated their childhoods and their energies to baseball gloves and shoulder pads. If there were other ways out and up, they were blinded to them by the success of a few sports celebrities." In Rayville, La., a rural town of 5,000, Olsen encountered a black basketball coach named Melvin Rogers, then 45. Rogers had only recently seen one of Rayville's local heroes, Elvin Hayes, sign a lucrative NBA contract. More significant to Rogers than Hayes's success were the failures suffered by the hundreds of less talented young black athletes who committed themselves to following Hayes. "A white kid tries to become president of the United States," said Rogers, "and all the skills and knowledge he picks up on the way can be used in a thousand different jobs. A black kid tries to become Willie Mays, and all the tools he picks up on the way are useless to him if he doesn't become Willie Mays."
Have things changed? Apparently not. A Lou Harris poll conducted last year for Lapchick's center indicated that 43% of black male high school athletes believe they are going to play pro sports someday.
Those few blacks who do make it in big-time sports believe they are at least marginally better off than blacks thought they were in 1968. Responses to an SI survey of pro athletes in the three major sports (see following story) indicated that the vast majority of blacks did not believe their teams had any problems with racism. An even larger majority said they rarely, if ever, heard racial slurs from white opponents. However, a majority also thought that whites generally received favored treatment in their sport, that blacks generally got worse salaries or contract terms than whites, and that blacks were far less likely than whites to be allowed into team management after their playing years.
So what progress has been made? The answer seems to lie in the eye of the beholder. For the record, Olsen is pessimistic about what has happened—or not happened—since his series was published. "The problem isn't close to being solved," he says. "The sports establishment is still refusing to take any responsibility for the education of black athletes or their preparation for a future beyond sports."
A view on the brighter side comes from another former SI staffer who worked on the 1968 series, Johnathan Rodgers. Today, at 45 years old, Rodgers is president of the CBS television stations division. Comparing black athletes then and now, Rodgers says, "They have come a long way. When we were working on the series, they were terrified to talk to us on the record. Also, blacks' right to ownership isn't questioned anymore. Black owners bought the Denver Nuggets; Walter Payton might own an NFL team in St. Louis soon. Blacks are taking part in the dream more than back then."
Rodgers is right. Glacial as it may be, there has been progress over the decades. The young black men rising now to big league sports have it far, far better than they may know because of other athletes who have gone before. Unfortunately, the courageous struggle of the Jackie Robinsons and the Larry Dobys may have been forgotten—or never learned—by the kids coming up.
A couple of weeks ago, Bryan Burwell, a sports columnist for the Detroit News, was interviewing one Eddie Williams, 19, a strapping black high school catcher from Miami who had been drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and had excitedly declared that his "plan" called for him to be playing in the majors in two years. Burwell asked Williams if he could imagine what life had been like for Josh Gibson, the brilliant Negro league star of the 1930s and '40s and Hall of Fame catcher, who had not been allowed to play in the majors because of his skin color.
Williams was appalled—and amazed. "Wow, no," he cried. "No, no never? Never have a chance to play in the majors? Wow, I could never imagine that. Never in a million years."
Which, of course, is also progress of a sort.
"IT'S WORSE THAN EVER. BECAUSE THERE IS SO MUCH MONEY AT STAKE, KIDS ARE IMMERSED IN THE COMPETITION FOR THE BIG PRIZES EARLIER."