How Should Sports Answer the Question That Calhoun Dismissed?

February 25, 2009

The question touched a raw nerve.  Some argue that it was out of line and out of place at a basketball press conference.  Others are stunned that a non-journalist, activist, law school student did the asking.  How dare he?  Still more wonder why UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun lost his cool and went ballistic.


The question was essentially: Should Calhoun take a pay cut from his multi-million dollar salary as Connecticut’s highest paid government worker, while the state faces a huge budget shortfall during the nation’s worst economic crisis?

Calhoun, doing his best Bob Knight impersonation, answered by telling the “reporter”,  Ken Krayeske, to shut up, and then called him stupid.

A lot of folks in the sports world – including sports journalists – are blaming the messenger.   They say Ken Krayeske didn’t have the proper credentials and shouldn’t have been there in the first place.   Personally, I think that some reporters are angry that Krayeske showed them up, by asking a question they would never dare ask.  Calhoun argued that he brings in millions of dollars in revenue to the University of Connecticut, and won’t give “a dime back” from his salary.  And he has many supporters of this rationale, including journalists who wear the proper credentials.

So no, I don’t think the question is out of line at all.  And now that we’ve had a few days to see Calhoun’s response for ourselves and ponder even more, the reality of a what an economic downturn really means, the tide may be turning.  Yesterday, Connecticut’s governor called Calhoun’s nasty response to the question an “embarrassing display”.

The fact is Calhoun could have answered in a civil manner and acknowledged the seriousness of the times with respect and compassion.  After all Jim Calhoun is not being hurt by the economy, but many who support his team and pay for tickets and tuition are.  As a result he came off as arrogant and out-of-touch.

One thing for certain – the question will be asked again.  Maybe not to Calhoun, but to others in the sports universe.  Maybe it will be phrased like this: What are you willing to sacrifice while millions lose their jobs and others struggle to pay their mortgages?  How will those sports figures respond?  The global economic crisis now has Greg Norman suggesting that golfers take a cut in prize money.

Yes, sports are important, and they offer much needed diversions, escapes from sometimes harsh realities. Sports stars play a significant role in improving the quality of our lives.  But now its time for them to consider how they can do even more.   Sometimes more means taking less.


Super Bowl 43: What Black Coach?

January 31, 2009

A day before the big game, the nation’s biggest annual event, and this year there are very few words about the prospect of an African-American coach winning. This time it seems Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin is just another coach on the verge of leading his team to victory on the world’s largest sports stage. I suppose that’s progress. Perhaps.

We are only two years removed from Tony Dungy’s historic victory as coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy won the only Super Bowl where there was a certainty the winning coach would be black. Dungy and Bears coach Lovie Smith were the lead story that Super Bowl. It seemed just about every interview and commentary leading up to that game contained some reference to the history that was about to be made. The first always gets the attention. It should. Dungy one of sport’s all-time gentlemen, and dignified leaders proved you don’t have to curse and glower to motivate and lead. He deserved every accolade that he got. And by god he is black!

But what about the next guy – Mike Tomlin – in fact an apple off of the Dungy coaching tree? How should we recognize him? And what should we say if he leads the Steelers to another championship? Is it better to ignore Tomlin’s color, when in fact African-American coaches still struggle to get respect, let alone jobs at all levels of football? Right now it seems those are questions many people don’t want to talk about. But I say let’s talk and keep talking, lest we forget how long it took men like Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy to get to the big game. The fact is it took way too long. And in just two years some of us are acting like it doesn’t mean anything that another African-American is so quickly knocking on the door of football history – again. On-going and provable accomplishment and progress is a story we shouldn’t be quiet about.

As evidenced by the swearing in of Barack Obama as the country’s 44th president, we are indeed living in an historic time. But it doesn’t mean that full racial parity has been achieved and racial injustice has been adjudicated. And it doesn’t mean we should silently watch just because one hurdle, even a huge one, has finally been cleared. That next hurdle is important too.

Super Bowl XLI: Validating the Rooney Rule

January 22, 2007

Following the AFC and NFC championship games yesterday there is one certainty: an African American head coach will win the upcoming Super Bowl. Let that sink in for a minute. For the first time in NFL history two black men will lead their teams in football’s biggest game. This is an extremely significant development for America’s biggest sports league and its fans and for sports in general. It also validates the importance of the Rooney Rule, which mandates that NFL teams seeking a new head coach must conduct serious interviews with minority candidates as part of the process.

Super Bowl XLI will see Tony Dungy, the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, taking on his close friend and former coaching colleague Lovie Smith, head coach of the Chicago Bears. I couldn’t be more pleased about this matchup. For some of us this is the best possible Super Bowl. A Super Bowl where even if you lose you still win. I grew up a huge Bears fan when Indianapolis did not have an NFL team and later became a fan of my hometown Colts after they “relocated” from Baltimore. I also feel good about the fact that the winning coach will be a black man – another no-lose proposition.

While the Rooney Rule was not in place when Tony Dungy was first hired head coach by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twelve years ago, it was the reason that Dungy protege Lovie Smith got a chance to interview for the Bears job three years ago. It is also the reason that former Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, just announced as the new head coach of the Steelers, was given a fair hearing by the Rooney family in Pittsburgh. Mike Tomlin also used to work for Tony Dungy.

One day I suppose there will be no need for the Rooney Rule. But history tells us that for awhile at least NFL team owners must be “motivated” (forced) to do the right thing. For years black coaches in the NFL labored under the ludicrous misperception that they didn’t have what it takes to lead teams as head coaches. In 1989 when the Raiders hired Art Shell as the NFL’s first modern day head coach the perception of black coaches started to change. The Minnesota Vikings later hired Dennis Green as head coach and the perception changed further. Today six black men are head coaches in the NFL and two of them will face off for the title. This is indeed progress.

But in a league where well over two thirds of the players are black and less than ten black men have EVER been head coaches in the NFL the Rooney Rule is still needed.

But when the first black head coach wins the Super Bowl two weeks from now I hope there will be a greater understanding of the intelligence and leadership skills that African Americans have always brought to the game. When there is a general acceptance of that fact it is then that the Rooney Rule can be retired.

Martyball: More Than Wins and Losses

January 18, 2007

For the record I’m a longtime Marty Schottenheimer fan, so I am pleased that he did not take the fall for coaching yet another losing playoff game last weekend. Still, the outcry for his ouster has been loud and long. While I’m not Marty’s apologist, maybe I should be.

There has been a lot of crazy talk this week about Chargers owner Alex Spanos firing the NFL’s winningest active coach after the Chargers lost to the Patriots. But yesterday Spanos granted Schottenheimer a reprieve. Schottenheimer’s Chargers finished a league best 14 – 2 during the regular season. But his latest post-season loss drops an already very poor career playoff record to just 5 wins and 13 losses. The naysayers and critics say Marty was coaching a team that was supposed to not just go to the Super Bowl but win it. Instead the Chargers lost and it just had to be Marty’s fault.

It’s been more than 30 years since Marty last put on shoulder pads and actually played a game in the NFL. Which is why Marty was on the sideline looking on helplessly when several of his players made a couple of horrendously costly – and stupid – mistakes on the field Sunday. There is only so much a coach can do. It is a players game. The coach can’t make the tackles, blocks, passes, runs or kicks that are the essential elements of the game. The coach can only watch and hope that his coaching sticks somehow. Kind of like parenting.

Marty’s coaching style is honest, straightforward and quintessentially old-school. His uncompromising, no excuses character also leaves him virtually unprotected from the vultures who try to feast on him when the going gets tough and the playoff losses mount. Most coaches these days don’t leave that much ass exposed – covering it early and often. But Marty’s unique (say honest) approach to coaching is exactly what makes Marty Schottenheimer special and vulnerable.

At no point did Marty beg for his job or point to his record. He didn’t because he shouldn’t have to. No, he hasn’t won very many playoff games or the Super Bowl and maybe he never will. But a lot of coaches and players have never won the big game either. That doesn’t make them or Marty losers. He knows perhaps too well that all you can do is work hard to prepare your team and let the players play the game. And in the end if the owner wants to fire you then so be it. In Washington a few years ago Marty Schottenheimer was fired for being Marty after just one year. But the Redskins have never quite recovered from Schottenheimer’s honorable year as coach. For this year at least the owner wasn’t so stupid as to let one of football’s best coaches go because the players failed on the field. Martyball is definately more than wins and losses.

NFL Moving Toward Coaching Equality

January 8, 2007

Forty one years ago the NBA became the first major sports league with an African American head coach when the Boston Celtics named Bill Russell to lead the team. At that time the question many people had was when would the next minority coach be named. NBA teams responded with honor. In four decades black coaches have won multiple championships and have been hired and fired and hired again. That’s the way it should be. No one raises an eyebrow anymore when a black man gets an NBA head coaching job or when a black man is fired. Which means the system is working.

Conversly, the NFL moved much slower. It didn’t name a black head coach until 1989. That man, Hall of Fame lineman Art Shell was fired five years later with a winning record by the Raiders. More than a decade later Shell was hired by the Raiders again but last week was fired again just one season into his return. Art Shell was the fourth black re-tread coach – in other words a coach given a second chance to lead a team. Ironically that’s a good sign, even as Shell licks his wounds from termination.

Another good sign was seen in Indianapolis over the weekend when Colts head coach Tony Dungy faced off against one of his African American coaching protege’s, Kansas City’s Herman Edwards, while another of his minority proteges – Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith sat in the RCA Dome stands cheering on his buddies. This is how the coaching fraternity grows, when one guy, like Dungy, spreads the wealth and the knowledge and witnesses the benefits of his teaching. In turn Herman Edwards and Lovie Smith are growing their own coaching trees. Which in a few years should result in more minority head coaches.

No, all is not perfect in the NFL. At the end of the regular season, two black head coaches were fired. Another, Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, perhaps needs no less than a winning season in order to survive past next year. Still, the fact remains that two African American coaches could face each other this year in the Super Bowl from the same coaching tree a potentially great thing for NFL coaching equality.

But let me close by offering this sense of perspective despite the NFL’s obvious progress. Two black head coaches – KC Jones and Al Attles – X’d and O’d against each other for the championship in the NBA – in 1975, that was 32 years ago.