Racism in American sports is nothing new. It reflects broader racism in our society, and there’s little indication that it will be eradicated anytime soon.
Black Americans have had to fight for every inch they have gained in this country’s major sports leagues. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863, but it took until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. In Boston, racist owner Tom Yawkey didn’t add a black player to the Red Sox roster until 12 years later. The National Football League got its first black player of the modern era in 1946, but another racist owner, George Preston Marshall, refused to integrate the Washington Redskins until 1962, and only then under great duress.
The hiring of black head coaches and managers in these major sports took even longer. Frank Robinson became the first black MLB manager in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the NFL got its first black head coach of the modern era with the hiring of Art Shell by the Oakland Raiders. Even today, the numbers of minority managers and head coaches are far from overwhelming. Despite black players making up a significant majority of NFL rosters, there are only about a half-dozen black head coaches, including the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, who no doubt is the target of racial invective in bars and living rooms throughout our own area. In baseball, you can count the black managers on one hand, with fingers left over.
Major-college football got its first black coach in 1979, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress since then. Of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, only 11 were led by black coaches as of last season.
It’s hard to prove that behind-the-scenes racial discrimination on the part of college presidents, boards of trustees and athletic directors is keeping qualified black coaches from reaching the top echelon of college football – even though there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence – but even if a black coach gets one of these plum jobs, his battles are far from over.
Sometimes the racial enmity bubbles to the surface, as in the recent situation involving Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin.
In the opening game of the season, Texas A&M coughed up a huge second-half lead and lost to UCLA. Sumlin’s critics had a field day, and one member of the school’s board of regents publicly called for his immediate dismissal. Those folks were largely kind, however, in comparison with the person who sent a threatening letter to Sumlin’s house, complete with a racial slur. It read, “You suck as a coach! You’re a ------ and can’t win! Please get lost! Or else.”
In a conversation with Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports, Tyrone Willingham, who was a head coach at Washington, Stanford and Notre Dame, said such letters and other communications are not rare.
“I knew all that stuff was around me,” said Willingham. “And I think most African-American coaches know it’s around them. I believe most (black coaches) have had to deal with it. It’s not a surprise.”
Willingham told Forde he suspects football office secretaries and other staff members intercepted much of the incendiary correspondence that was sent his way over the years, but he did recall that one threat received during his time at Notre Dame was sufficiently frightening that police were brought into the matter.
It’s safe to say the person who sent the letter to Sumlin is not the only one who has employed the racial slur in question against the coach, or has a problem with a black man making $5 million a year to coach football at the Texas school. He was just the one who shelled out half a buck for a stamp.