King Kaufman's Sports Daily

A white sports legend says something stupid but not hateful about blacks and the reaction is measured and appropriate. We might be getting somewhere. Plus: The Final Four


Salon Staff
April 3, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

The racially insensitive sports comment of the week comes to you courtesy of former Notre Dame and Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung, who said in a radio interview that Notre Dame has to lower its academic standards if it wants to return to football glory "because we gotta get the black athlete. We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete."

Hornung quickly apologized. For real. It wasn't a sports apology -- "I'm sorry if anyone is so sensitive as to be offended by my harmless remarks" -- but one in which he said, "I was wrong." And the condemnation of his remarks around the country has been swift and stern but not overwrought.

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The Chicago Tribune wrote that the university should relieve him of his announcing duties on Irish football broadcasts, but Hornung, the 1956 Heisman Trophy winner who has no record of racism and some record to the contrary, doesn't look like he's going to be chopped off at the knees. And as dumb as his statement about black athletes was, that's a good thing.

Every time some public sports figure is buried for racial comments, vilified, fired, sent into exile, it's a bad thing no matter how stupid those comments are. Race is a huge issue in sports, and it's almost never talked about honestly and openly. Quick, fierce reprisals for people who say anything offensive or insensitive just make everyone more timid.

Open discussion needs to be encouraged, even nurtured. Hateful racists need to be denounced in no uncertain terms. Well- or neutral-meaning folks who speak insensitively need to be educated.

I like the way the response to Hornung's comments has mostly been a patient recitation of the facts: Notre Dame's academic standards haven't changed as the football team's fortunes have risen and fallen, the university says. And anyway the Notre Dame football team is majority black, and has significantly more blacks than the Division I-A average. And, Mr. Hornung, your stereotypical assumptions were hurtful to blacks because you implied they're all dumb, and to whites because you implied they all can't play ball, neither of which is true.

The Hall of Famer said Wednesday that his comments to a Detroit radio station Tuesday shouldn't have singled out black athletes. He said he should have said standards should be lowered for all athletes.

Always a good idea: Let's lower the standards. Never mind that Notre Dame and plenty of other schools have shown that it's possible to compete with high academic standards. You may have heard of a little school called Duke that's got a game or two coming up this weekend. Stanford often trumpets itself as the most successful university in the country athletically, in terms of championships won across all sports, and that's not just from stocking up on tennis trophies. The Cardinal have been no slouches in the revenue sports in recent times.

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One thing that isn't needed anywhere in Division I-A is a lowering of academic standards. There are good points to be made that an over-reliance on test scores is discriminatory, since SAT scores correlate far better with economic standing than they do with intelligence. Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle made those points nicely Thursday.

But then the solution wouldn't be to lower standards, but to find ways to overcome that bias in the testing, to give potential scholars a chance to overcome the handicap of a poor background. This of course shouldn't be limited to athletes, or to black people. Blacks are poor in greater proportions than whites, but there's plenty of poverty to go around for every race.

What really worries me about Hornung is that he didn't seem to know that his alma mater's team, which he covers as an announcer, has more black players than white ones. I've never had the pleasure of listening to the Golden Boy doing a game, but he must be a heck of an analyst.

Here's the real reason Notre Dame hasn't won a national football championship in -- saints alive! -- 15 years: parity. The era is long past when Notre Dame could attract the top players just because it was Notre Dame. Instead of the same handful of schools dominating football, there are perhaps three dozen that cycle in and out of the national title picture. Fifteen years is nothing. Notre Dame's turn won't come around again until the 2020s or so. If the Irish win before then, they should consider themselves lucky.

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But it's not worth lowering the academic standards to achieve.

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The Final Four: Duke men, UConn women [PERMALINK]

Boy, people who think the ACC is miles ahead of all lesser forms of college basketball -- you know who you are -- are really going to be insufferable if Georgia Tech and Duke both win their NCAA Tournament semifinal games Saturday and make it to the Championship Game Monday night.

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I had Duke going all the way to the title game in my bracket, then losing to long-departed Kentucky. I still think Duke will beat UConn, especially since it was reported Wednesday that Huskies star Emeka Okafor had reinjured his already aching back in practice. Even with a healthy Okafor, who will play, I don't think Connecticut, which has more talent than anybody, has the grit to beat the Blue Devils.

I'm going with Oklahoma State to win the other semifinal in a tough one. I think their defense will be the difference, as usual, but the wild card will be Tech's B.J. Elder. If he's sufficiently recovered from the sprained ankle he sustained in the Sweet 16 and has one of his big shooting nights, the Cowboys could be in real trouble. He says he's fine, but once the ball goes up, it's hard to fake it on a sprained ankle.

If Duke and Oklahoma State win, and then Oklahoma State wins the title game, I will miraculously win the Salon Pool o' Experts, featuring many national typists and squawkers. I've been forgetting all along to include the Sports Illustrated bracket, which inspired the Pool o' Experts in the first place with its incomparable hubris.

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The magazine's editors don't just pick winners, they actually try to predict the specific circumstances of purely theoretical matchups as the Tournament proceeds. So this year, for example, they had East Tennessee State upsetting Cincinnati and then moving on to the Sweet 16 by beating "a cold-shooting Illinois" in the second round. Not only did ETSU not beat Cincinnati, but in the second-round game in question, Illinois beat the Bearcats by hitting practically every shot.

But don't worry that the Pool o' Experts has been compromised. The S.I. bracket, newly inserted, sits in ninth place in the 12-bracket pool. The magazine picked UConn to win it all, so it could finish as high as second, but it could also finish 11th if UConn loses to Duke, in which case it would beat only its own scribe, Grant Wahl.

I think Duke is going to win the whole thing.

I was doing much better with my women's bracket than I was on the male side until I ran off the road in the Elite 8 round. I'd gotten six of eight teams that far and had three of my Final Four teams still alive. I had a real shot at winning your pool. Then, disaster.

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I figured 6-seed Stanford would go on a run in the Midwest and it did, but I took the Cardinal one step too far, thinking they'd beat Tennessee in the Elite 8. Wrong. I also figured Duke, the 1 seed in the Mideast, would go all the way. I didn't think Alana Beard would let them lose, but the Blue Devils ran into 7-seed Minnesota, the story of the Tournament.

The Golden Gophers were kind of like Louisville in the men's Tourney, a good team that had gone through an injury-driven slump and was far more dangerous than its seed would imply. Minnesota started 15-0, wobbled a bit in January, losing three straight to ranked teams, then had it going again when star Lindsay Whalen broke her hand in a game against Ohio State. The Gophers lost that game, then four of their last seven down the stretch before Whalen returned for the Tournament.

I knew that, but just as I had Louisville, a 10 seed, winning one game and then losing to the 2 on the men's side, I had Minnesota beating No. 10 UCLA and then losing to 2-seed Kansas State. Louisville's men didn't even win that one game, and Minnesota beat the top two seeds to go to the Final Four against Connecticut, so now you know I can't pick worth a damn regardless of gender. I didn't see LSU beating Texas in the Sweet 16 in the West, never mind getting to a semifinal game against Tennessee.

The Huskies, who stumbled a bit this year by their own ridiculous standards -- three regular-season losses -- and were the No. 2 in the East, are my pick to go all the way for the third straight time. They're Tournament tested, they have the best player in the nation in Diana Taurasi and they're on a roll again since their desultory loss to Boston College in the Big East Tournament. They clubbed a very good Penn State team by 17 points last weekend, and it wasn't that close.

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The semifinals are Sunday, the title game Tuesday night.

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