King Kaufman's Sports Daily

ESPN's Len Elmore on race in sports: "We had this same conversation back in the '50s."


Salon Staff
November 15, 2005 10:00PM (UTC)

In a September talk on race and sports at the University of Rhode Island, ESPN college basketball analyst Len Elmore began by speaking about the way sports has acted as a double-edged sword for African-Americans.

Sports have afforded blacks opportunities and provided heroes and role models, but theyve also been used to, in Elmores words, slam the door. The stories of early African-American sports heroes such as jockey Isaac Murphy and boxing champion Jack Johnson are as much about their banishment and ruin as they are about their athletic success.

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Elmore, who is black, was an all-American basketball player at the University of Maryland who went on to a 10-year ABA and NBA career with the Indiana Pacers, Kansas City Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks. After a stint as a sports agent representing football and basketball players, hes now an attorney in New York for the firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae.

Elmore says URI invited him to speak on race and sports because hes commented and written quite a bit about the subject in his former role as a columnist for Sports Business Journal and his current one as a TV commentator.

The intersection of race and sports being one of this white columnists favorite subjects, I invited him to speak some more about it. We talked by phone last week as he drove from a set of meetings at ESPN in Bristol, Conn.

Is sports leading, trailing or both in terms of the discussion on race in this country?

I think it's a double-edged sword. I think that, unfortunately, African-American athletes sometimes play in to the stereotypes and allow themselves in some way to become caricatures. That allows a segment of society that would do them ill to use that as an example to support their negative contentions.

Give me an example of that.

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Well, a great example would be the whole hip-hop culture. Now, I'm not going to comment one way or the other about the propriety of that culture. I mean, it is what it is. But many people look at it as symbolic of self-hate, misogyny, violence, things of that nature. And then you combine that with some of the isolated incidences of domestic violence, weapons possession, drug use, things of that nature, you know, again, the segment that would do them ill, it allows them to use that as an example.

Now, the flip side of it is, sports has been more of a meritocracy with regard to who has value, who's able to utilize their skills and rise to the top on the basis of skills. It's also created, and particularly the NBA, it's created more African-American millionaires than any other industry that I can think of in the history of the United States. That kind of access and that kind of means is nothing to scoff at.

We're about to talk about the NBA dress code here, but, talking about the hip-hop culture and young men playing into these stereotypes, on some level, isn't legislating or even advising against, say, dressing in hip-hop clothes or making rap albums or whatever, isn't that letting the haters dictate to these young guys what their culture should be? Why should they not be involved in whatever culture they want to just because some middle-aged white columnist somewhere is going to say, "These guys are a bunch of thugs."

Well, if in fact it was just the middle-aged white columnists, I might agree. But it's more than that. It's also a community that looks upon these young men as not only leaders in fact but leaders in future. And I think that the influence that they have on my children, and quite honestly, King, on your children, it's something we've got to be careful of. As a society we've built these pedestals for athletes, and now we can no longer control it.

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Now, you're right, it is essentially fuel for the haters to some extent. But I don't see, as we launch into the dress code, I don't see [NBA commissioner] David Stern so much as a hater. David Stern is a businessman.

I wasn't suggesting Stern was.

Yeah, no, but I'm using that as an example. He's a businessman, and I guarantee you, the very impetus for this change came from corporate sponsors, the very ones who pay the NBA, utilize them to get their messages out, and now their message has essentially been mixed.

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And that's what these young men have to understand, the question of appropriateness. I don't think anybody's saying you cannot practice your culture. You practice it where appropriate. I have to wear a jacket to work, and appropriate clothes to work.

These guys understand appropriateness. When you look at the NBA draft, every single one of those guys, first-round picks, the most visible guys, walking across that stage, How many of them wore, you know, three sizes too big T-shirts and a baseball hat turned backwards and shorts and bling? They all wore suits. Because that's appropriate, and they understand it.

To me the NBA's the most fascinating nexus of race and sports because you've got these pulling interests, the predominantly black players, with the predominantly white fan base, ownership and corporate interests. It seems like almost every move by the league, it's possible to see racial politics going on.

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Yeah, and you're absolutely right. And there may well be. There certainly is from an impact standpoint. There's going to be disparate impact because, as you mentioned, it's a majority African-American league. However, just as in the law, if there is sound business judgment behind it and there's no other pretext that can be proven with regard to whether or not there's racial motive behind it, then it's got to be accepted.

It gets back to that basic theory that those folks are paying the dollars, and this is not a right, to play the sport. It's a privilege. I went through it as well. There were a lot of things that went on that I didn't like, but I recognized the privilege of it, and, you know, there's still enough freedom, and you still as an individual still have enough intelligence and economic power to be able to live your culture reasonably.

We disagree on the NBAs age limit. I think I take a more practical view. You say the age limit is good because it pushes guys to college, which can only do good for them. I agree it can only do good to go to college, but I'm not sure these kids are going to college. I think they're going to go to Europe.

I don't, and the reason I don't is these kids also want to be seen. One of the greatest motivators for guys that pursue that life from middle school on is the fact that you are somebody. That you're seen. That you command attention. Notwithstanding the dollars or anything else. Last time I checked, European basketball wasn't widely viewed on national television and didn't have a March Madness, and didn't have a built-in avenue towards marketing success.

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More importantly, as we talk about the age limit, as I've tried to make clear, it goes beyond the focus on that individual. I've always agreed that when you have a prodigy like a LeBron or a Kevin Garnett or a Kobe or whomever, you can't deny them the opportunity. But if they're one in 10 million, what happens to the other 9,999,000? What happens to the

>Lenny Cookes and the

>Omar Cooks, and the people who watch them as well, the kids who are following them?

They start to kind of foreclose on their own opportunities by neglecting education. And I'm not just talking about formal education, I'm talking about an education as to what society expects of them and what they have to expect of society, what decorum is about.

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These kids forget about all that and they focus on the game. And then when the game doesn't choose them, they're fresh out of luck. They don't have a Plan B. And that's what I'm focused on.

As I've mentioned before, at a time when we've got more black males behind bars than college-age black males in college, we've got a situation where we can't build obstacles to college. We've got to build superhighways guiding these guys to college. You know, we're 12 percent of the population of America, and almost 50 percent of the prison population is African-American.

A college football coach was in the news recently for racial comments, Fisher DeBerry of Air Force said, after a loss to TCU, It's very obvious they had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran faster than we did. It just seems to me to be that way, that Afro-American players can run very, very well. That doesn't mean that Caucasians kids and other descents can't run, but it's very obvious to me that they run extremely well."

What do you think of the way DeBerry got hammered for what he said?

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The only problem is that we had this same conversation back in the '50s. I'm sure Bear Bryant went through this, and another of other Southern coaches when they played schools like Michigan State, and schools of that nature, recognizing the change in the game that the African-American athlete brings. If you're going to talk about the speed and these other things, I don't have a problem with that.

What Joe Paterno said [Poor Fisher DeBerry got in trouble, but the black athlete has made a big difference. They have changed the whole tempo of the game. Black athletes have just done a great job as athletes and as people in turning the game around.] is absolutely true. The game was revolutionized by the advent of the black athlete. There's no two ways about it. It doesn't make the black athlete superior in general or anything else. It's just it's been a different style, and coaches have adapted to that style. And they've used it to their benefit over the years.

I mean, you look at SEC schools over the years, you look on the defense where you need most athletes, and there are teams with nine, 10 and a number of teams that have all 11 starters are African-Americans. What does that tell you? Why does that make what they're saying wrong?

That's a whole 'nother conversation. Can you talk about physical differences between the races without being called a Nazi?

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Well, look, they're so obvious in sport. And that's the emphasis: It's obvious in sports that there's a segment of African-American athletes who excel in that respect. That's not to say that a Tim Dwight or a Don Beebe or others before him don't fit that mold, but when you look at the teams, the teams are going to reflect the truth in that statement.

I guess what I'm wondering about, I'm not the only guy in the world to point this out, there's a book about this called "Taboo" --

Right, I know Jon Entine.

But it's more than that that's taboo. What I've noticed over the years is that if anybody says anything that's racially questionable, they are immediately hammered down, kind of beyond all proportion to what it really ought to be. And while it seems like "Hey, good, the forces of good and right are winning out and these racists aren't having their say anymore," it seems to me like what we're really doing when that happens is that we're getting rid of this guy, quickly, so that we don't have to have a conversation about race.

Right. And I agree with that that we have become so sensitive to issues of race. People are afraid to open old wounds on one hand. There are a lot of people who mean well when they shout down those who would bring race and differences in race to the fore as it pertains to sport. But the flipside of it is, I can understand it because, as Harry Edwards said, and it's in my speech, those differences have been used far too often to demean African-American people.

The other thing is what you give in attributes in sports, particularly physical attributes, is often taken away from the mental aspect. So the better an athlete you are, and the more a so-called natural athlete you are, the dumber you are. It's the dumb jock syndrome. That's where the fear comes in, and I think no one wants to go down that road again, but we've got to find a way where we can have an open and honest discussion, lay it on the table, so we can get rid of the sensitivity. That's just another way to erase the line that separates us.

How do we get to that point? Given that legitimate point, what Edwards said, given that history, how do we get to the point where we can have that conversation?

Quite honestly, I think it's incumbent upon us in the black community to be able to demonstrate that we're not a monolith, that we have differing views on the same subject. That's always been the case. It's kind of like Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point. The more we talk about it, the more it spreads and seems to become acceptable. When I say we I'm talking about African-Americans. The more we can discuss it, the less we have to bristle when it's a legitimate statement or question.

It's OK. Debate is fine, and we have to demonstrate that debate is fine. But we have to set boundaries and can't allow it to descend back to the depths that it once did.

Because Gladwell also said in an article that, you know, we talk about how hypertension is prevalent in African-American males as opposed to white males. We talk about how breast tumors grow larger and more often in African-American women than white women. We talk about the prevalence of diabetes in African-American and Latino-Hispanic people by comparison to whites. But we can't talk about physical differences in sports? It doesn't make sense.

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Housekeeping note [PERMALINK]

This column will be off Wednesday, returning Thursday.

Previous column: NFL coaches orgy of risk-taking

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