The Athletic Mirror…
I share an important date with former basketball coach the late Don Haskins, March 14, our birthday. Haskins led the then Texas Western Basketball team to the 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball championship against the vaunted and famed Kentucky Wildcats, led by legendary coach Adolph Rupp. Coach Rupp has an arena named in his honor and is considered one of the handfuls of coaches whose status is unquestioned among his peers. The most memorable game in coach Rupp's basketball coaching history was the 1966 NCAA championship against Don Haskins' Texas Western Miners.
Haskins, a native of Enid, Oklahoma, was hardly an East Coast elite. He was fair-minded and willing to leave any racist childhood lessons of his Oklahoma past behind by all reports.
This game was so memorable because Haskins started five black players for the first time in the game's history and used two substitutes throughout, both of which were black; by the way, Texas Western won the game 72-65 and made history. Reportedly famed writer Frank Deford told a colleague that Rupp said to his players, who trailed 34-31 at halftime, “You've got to beat those coons,” and told his center, “You go after that big coon.” The game took place a mere nineteen years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball. Many believe that the integration of baseball was the tear African Americans needed to rip open the seams of institutional racism. Of course, that was a lofty goal to place on the institution of baseball and Robinson, but Robinson was the great black hope for many. Before that, society's mirror was reflected in the sweaty black face of Joe Louis, who fought for America's pride against Germany's Max Schmeling. For Louis, Robinson, and to a lesser extent, the Texas Western Miners were all told to be humble and not show up white opponents.
Boxer Muhammad Ali broke that mold in the 1960s. Mr. Ali was not always the beloved figure. Once he publicly proclaimed he was a Muslim, Ali was no longer just a brash boxer, untouched by his opponents. Ali became a deeply hated figure by white society. Although his story has come under question, Ali claimed to have tossed his Gold medal into the Ohio River. What was clear was that he was denied a seat at a restaurant upon returning to Kentucky with the award he won at the Rome Olympics.
I believe most would see these as evident and deliberate acts of racism. That brings us to the present actions of the now-former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Reminiscent of Sgt. Hartman, from the movie Full Metal Jacket, Gruden went on an eight-year email tirade insulting Black people, women, gay people, his commissioner, a president, and anyone else who fell within the sights of his space bar. Gruden is not some Johnny-come-lately to the NFL. He has won championships and related the intricacies of the game to millions on television. Gruden wielded a big club of influence in the game. Gruden's race-based insult of NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith was a shock to most. Gruden initially answered the uproar of his written comments by telling the press, “I don't have a racist bone in my body.”
I am not suggesting that Jon Gruden be branded with a scarlet letter, but I am suggesting that when the phrase institutional racism is used, one is wise to remember history is not stagnant but a constant. That old and worn defense is as hollow and bereft of morals as those who use it. Whether it be Mark Meadows, Ralph Northam, or Donald Trump, white men and women caught with their racist pants down often look to have the victims of their ignorance save them, and too often, the aggrieved and people of color oblige. Mr. Gruden’s future is hanging by its fingernails on a weak limb, and so far, no one has thrown him a lifeline.
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