THIS WEEK WE CELEBRATED the birth of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a day which has been set aside to consider his work, his legacy and his unfinished mission. And while we continue to work toward his goal of a color-blind society, it is worthwhile to consider the progress we have made. Without denying the distance left to go, now is a good time to celebrate how far we have come -- in part because of the work of this visionary man as well as others.
While we have made great progress towards a color-blind society in many arenas, I'm not sure that we have made more progress anywhere than in sports. I say this in part because of the way sports work in our sports-obsessed society -- which is not always good, but sometimes is.
Our sports obsession is one reason Dean Smith, as a coach, may have done more to eradicate racism in North Carolina than any of the many well-intentioned individuals who talked the talk of racial harmony but didn't walk it the way he did. He did it the day he convinced Charlie Scott to come to Chapel Hill on a basketball scholarship. That day the racial culture of this state changed.
My personal experience underpins that observation. When I started high school in Danville, Virginia, in 1965, the school system was segregated. During my time there they began to be integrated using "freedom of choice," which meant, in practical terms, some black students chose to come to the formerly all-white schools.
In my senior year, my recollection is that there were about 50 black students in a student body of 2400. Most came on principle. Some came for academics, being college bound. A few came for athletics, thinking that they might make a sports team at the white school that they couldn't make at the black one -- and often they were correct.
I played basketball, but not well enough to make the school team. I used to play regularly in pickup games on weekends and on weekdays during the summer on city playgrounds, traveling about with my best friend Maynard Reynolds. Maynard was good; he started as the varsity point guard as a sophomore. He once scored 56 points (as I remember it) in a freshman game at Hargrave Military Academy.
It is easy to see why they often fought over whose team got Maynard as we divided to play. I got to play because I was with him. Every time we played we were the only white players on the court. We were all just players, teammates and opponents, no distinctions, except maybe shirts and skins, the color of which was irrelevant.
Likewise, when black players joined the George Washington football team, if they could play they were welcomed as teammates. If they couldn't, they were ignored, sort of like I was -- not objects of animosity, just irrelevant.
But what about the fans? In case you haven’t noticed, they like to win too. If you were a running back and could run over an E.C. Glass linebacker, the fans loved you. The only color anybody cared about was the color of your jersey.
So, let's look at the roster of ACC men's basketball coaches today.
Of the current men's basketball head coaches of the 12 Atlantic Coast Conference schools, seven are African-American: Frank Haith at Miami, Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech, Dave Leitao at Virginia, Sidney Lowe at NC State, Oliver Purnell at Clemson and Al Skinner at Boston College.
It is in light of this reality that Raleigh News and Observer columnist Barry Saunders decried Duke University's decision as doing "the white thing" when it hired as its head football coach David Cutcliffe, a white man. If Saunders doesn't think that Duke's administrators would have hired a black man to be their coach if they thought he would be the best they could get, he's a bigger knucklehead than some of his columns imply. Duke was desperate. They would have brought back former placekicker Heather Sue Mercer as their head coach -- if they thought she could build a winning program.
And that’s football. If there is anywhere in this athletic conference where quotas, tokenism or unjustified affirmative action (meaning hiring less than the best) would not be tolerated, it is in men's basketball. Here we all, black and white, join Vince Lombardi in saying: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" -- with one condition, on which Lombardi would agree, as long as it's done right.
All these basketball coaches were hired because the schools thought they would win and win right. So far, they look pretty smart -- schools and coaches alike.
Gary D. Gaddy admits, based on some of his own columns, he is probably is a bigger knucklehead than Barry Saunders.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday January 24, 2008.
Copyright 2008 Gary D. Gaddy