Povich Symposium Discusses Race in Sports

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Povich Symposium Discusses Race in Sports
Nov 14, 2018

By Ben Cooper

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, called the Rooney Rule “a sham” during the 13th annual Shirley Povich Symposium at the University of Maryland Nov. 13.

The Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minorities during their head coach and senior leadership searches, was implemented in 2003 to try and balance the race disparity among NFL staffs.

Of the seven NFL coaches hired during the 2018 offseason, only one was African-American.

“That rule isn’t being enforced as it should,” Smith said during the panel hosted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at Riggs Alumni Center. “When the league doesn’t abide by the Rooney Rule when they’re supposed to and a team doesn’t get punished for not following [it], the only conclusion that I can come up with is you can violate a rule and not be in trouble — so I would call that rule a sham.”

Smith was joined by Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post; Tom McMillen of the Lead1 Association; Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated; and Scot Van Pelt, host of ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Moderated by Maury Povich, the panelists spoke on the topic “Race in Sports: The Challenge Continues,” amid local turmoil surrounding the Maryland football program after the death of Jordan McNair and national turmoil with a jobless Colin Kaepernick, who many believe is unemployed because of his kneeling during the national anthem.

The Rooney Rule was discussed as context for a larger pipeline issue with race in sports. The NFL has arguably been the most criticized major sports league in how it has handled race and protest. The NBA, however, has been largely praised for its handling of those issues — but it hasn’t always been that straight and narrow.

“In the ‘80s, even in the late ‘70s, there were a lot of problems with drugs, image, perception [in the NBA],” McMillen said. “[Then-commissioner] David Stern came in. I think he cleaned up the NBA. He realized that his core asset were the players, and so he put them into the forefront.”

Last Thursday, a slew of NBA players donned “Enough” T-shirts in remembrance of the Thousand Oaks shooting victims and in protest of gun violence. Commissioner Adam Silver spoke out in support of the act, saying players “aren’t just ballplayers, they’re citizens.”

Various NFL players have kneeled during the national anthem since 2016 — most famously Kaepernick — in protest of police brutality against African-Americans, only to be met with threatening tweets from President Donald Trump and an anthem policy approved in May that is now on hold.

And while McMillen admitted that the NBA’s 500 players compared to the NFL’s nearly 2,000 plays a role in how protests are dealt with, Van Pelt said the player-commissioner relationship is critical.

“I believe that the sense among NBA players it that it’s a collaboration with their commissioner as opposed to the NFL where it seems much more as a negotiation — a confrontation,” Van Pelt said.

Janes touched on a lack of a minority pipeline in MLB leadership positions, where white managers are the norm in a league driven by Spanish-speaking stars.

“The reason it matters so much in baseball is if you look at managerial hires, even GM hires — they’re trees,” she said. “Mike Scioscia from the Angels has all these managers around the game who came up under him. Joe Maddon is starting to have the same. If those guys are all white, if there’s no pipeline, you never break through.”

Smith referred to the players as “fuel” in an engine that generates money. And until those players are no longer seen as just fuel or entertainment, he said, onlookers will continue to scrutinize protests (particularly in the NFL). That entertainment culture makes fans feel entitled to treat athletes as “two-dimensional,” Smith said.

“Sports is entertainment. I think it’s a blessing, because it gives you more reach,” he said. “But it’s also a curse because that culture of entertainment is sometimes a reductionist way of treating people.”

Despite all the divide in sports, whether it be for a lack of minorities, a misunderstanding of protests or a rift perpetuated by the president, the platform will continue to be one of the most impactful for effecting change and addressing social issues.

“The greatest unifier we have as a country is sports,” Van Pelt said. “It’s the greatest common ground for people, whether you’re right or left or whether you’re Alabama or Auburn. We’re reminded time and time again of the role that sports can play as the great healer.”

Homepage image: from left to right Maury Povich, Chelsea Janes, Tom McMillen, Kevin Merida, Scott Van Pelt, DeMaurice Smith (Photo Credit: Tony Richards)

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