If You Scratch the Surface, There's a Long Way to Go

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Sports and civil rights seemed to go hand in hand. Not that I was alive during this time, but the remnants of this era can still be seen.

Whether it was Fritz Pollard becoming the first black to take part in professional football, Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam or Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists in Mexico City, there has always been a place for social thought in athletics.

What makes the accomplishments of these men so admirable is their ability to excel athletically while using the fame that accompanies superstardom as a platform for racial equality.

During February, which is Black History Month, many of these faces and many others are being flashed across television screens and remembered for their contributions to society.

In February 2052, today's superstars will be remembered for their outstanding athletic abilities, thanks to modern technology. But they won't be revered for making the sacrifices of their predecessors.

With all the barriers that have been broken down over the years, it's easy to think there isn't more athletes can do to bring visibility to social issues in America.

Times have changed. No longer does a black athlete have to fear for his life if he or she marries someone of another race, as boxing legend Jack Johnson did in the early 20th century.

The pervasive notion of blacks not being smart enough to run teams isn't nearly as prevalent.

But today's athletes take a lot of bashing for not taking stands politically or socially.

We live in a different era, where athletes leave activism to the activists. Athletes who do help out, do so in their way. Some professionals set up scholarship funds in their old neighborhoods. Collegiate competitors who want to "give back" often work as tutors. Nothing too militant, but helpful nonetheless.

Proposition 209 presented an opportunity for collegiate athletes to take a stance against something many didn't agree with.

In 1996, there was talk of blue-chip recruits spurning Cal and UCLA in protest of the policy. Not surprisingly, such a movement never gained steam. To ask someone who can't vote to use their choice of college as a form of protest wasn't likely to happen in mass. Former Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam didn't attend school in Arizona because the state didn't honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday, but he's the exception.

Any action involving a high school recruit being so conscious of race as to consider it in choosing his college usually involves the parents.

In 2001, Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow was vocal in stating that he wanted his son, Kellen Jr., to play football for a university with a diverse coaching staff.

Kellen Sr., who is black, wanted his son to attend Michigan State, which has one of four black head coaches in the 115-team Division I football. Kellen Jr. favored Washington, which only had two black coaches on its staff.

Dad refused to sign the paperwork to allow his son to become a Husky. The compromise they reached was Miami, which has a more diverse staff. Kellen Sr. took a lot of heat for his outspoken stance. But the fact that he needed to make this an issue shows how far sports still have to go when it comes to promoting minorities.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Charlie Strong might have been the most qualified head coaching candidate, but he is still a defensive coordinator. Several programs chose to go with retreads or men with shaky track records to run their programs.

Sports has come a long way. But as Charlie would tell you, there's still a ways to go.


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