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Race Relations Report Race Relations Report Race-Sports Talk Focuses Off the Field

President Clinton with N.Y. Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson, left, and former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown at Houston race forum. (AP Photo)
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 1998; Page A01

HOUSTON, April 14—The stage included some of the most successful figures from the world of sports, but the theme of the night was failure: Why are minorities, so accomplished on the fields and arenas of professional athletics, not doing better in the front offices and owners boxes?

The question prompted an emotional, and at times heated, discussion tonight as such well-known figures as Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, football legend Jim Brown and former track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee argued about the responsibilities of athletes, owners, corporations and fans in widening opportunities for blacks and other minorities.

Viewing it all was the nation's most prominent sports addict, President Clinton, who had initiated the televised "town hall meeting" as part of his campaign to foster national discussion on racial issues. Yet for much of the evening Clinton found himself more a spectator, or perhaps an accommodating referee, than a participant in the provocative exchanges occurring before him.

Brown, for instance, said African Americans need to start holding themselves more responsible for their failure to penetrate more effectively the business side of sports. Why, Brown asked, aren't highly paid athletes hiring more black agents and lawyers? Should they be doing more to pressure shoe companies such as Nike to advance minority concerns, rather than merely taking large endorsement fees?

"Show people that we can have racial unity, and that we understand the principles of economics," said Brown, a star running back for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and 1960s.

But his comments drew a sharp rebuke from Thompson, who is also black. Thompson said he could not offer his unfiltered reaction because he was on television and, "I can't use profanity on the show."

Thompson said he would not stop steering athletes to a respected friend, white agent David Falk, simply "because the pigmentation in his skin is white."

Falk, who represents Michael Jordan -- the Chicago Bulls guard who is perhaps the best-known athlete in the world -- is agent for former Hoya standouts Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

Thompson also defended Nike, on whose board of directors he sits, as a standout in providing opportunities to minorities.

Joyner-Kersee gave her own rebuttal to Brown, saying athletes' financial decisions should not have to be complicated by concepts of racial unity and obligation. "If I made all this money and I want my money invested here, I have a right to do that," she said.

She also offered an implicit rejoinder to the constant refrain of the evening: that frank discussion of difficult racial issues was itself evidence of good intentions and a sign of progress. That sentiment was offered by everyone from Clinton to ESPN sports anchor Bob Ley, who moderated the discussion.

But Joyner-Kersee said: "We can talk and we can talk, but people need to listen, and people need to do something about it." The three-time Olympic medalist said blacks are being denied senior coaching, management and ownership positions in sports because of "subtle racism . . . hidden racism."

The event, which was scheduled to run 90 minutes but ran 15 minutes longer, was carried live by ESPN, and was the second town hall meeting Clinton has participated in as part of a "national conversation" on race that he promised to sponsor in June of last year.

At the first session, in Akron last December, Clinton was the moderator and was more directly involved in the debate and in goading other participants to defend their thinking on racial issues.

Tonight's event was geared specifically to the question of race and sports. Clinton -- an avid basketball spectator and an enthusiastic, if sometimes erratic, golfer -- said in his opening remarks: "America, rightly or wrongly, is a sports-crazy country," and asserted that athletics serve as "a metaphor or a symbol of what we are as a people."

Professional and college athletics are often hailed as one arena in American life in which minorities have overcome discrimination, competing equally and in many instances dominating their fields. But tonight's participants repeatedly said self-congratulation and complacency were not warranted. The question ESPN posed in the program's title was "Sports and Race: Running in Place."

While there was widespread agreement that sports are not providing enough leadership opportunities for minorities, there seemed to be divergence about remedies.

Dennis Green, the African American head coach of the Minnesota Vikings football team, said the National Football League needs to set and meet clear targets for putting minorities in management positions. Joe Morgan, a baseball Hall of Famer with the Cincinnati Reds, said, "You can't say we should have X number of major league managers who are African Americans." At the same time, he said, many blacks are often shut out of the process when managers are selected. "If you're not interviewed, you're not going to get the opportunity to prove that you're capable."

Others participating in the 12-member panel were Keyshawn Johnson, a wide receiver with the New York Jets, who stirred controversy with his complaints about racial discrimination in his book, "Just Give Me the Damn Ball"; John Moores, the owner of baseball's San Diego Padres, who is white; and Felipe Lopez, a basketball player at St. John's University, who was added to the program belatedly after Hispanic groups complained that they were not represented in the discussion.

For all the tone of intense self-criticism, the evening had its light moments. One questioner in the audience of 1,000 asked Johnson to respond to a supposed comment by one NFL player that racial tensions are so severe that blacks and whites don't shower together. Johnson said he did not know who that player was, but drew laughs by adding, "He's left out there in the cold, because we all shower together."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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