It is one of those subjects that lies in the sports attic collecting dust. Take it out of the attic, though, and watch it create sparks:
Why are there so few blacks in sports management positions?
There are more explanations available to blacks than there are job openings.
"When blacks are hired as head coaches, among whites you get 'the niggers are taking over' kind of sentiment . . . It's an injustice that reverberates throughout the system," says Harry Edwards, sociology professor at the University of California and a force behind the historic and controversial clenched-fist salute at the 1968 Olympics by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
"I don't want to discuss it. It's a ridiculous subject. I didn't hire K.C. Jones because he was black. I hired him because he is a damn good coach," says Red Auerbach, general manager of the Boston Celtics.
"That commercial on TV says, 'For job experience, go to the Army.' Well, I can't go to the Army for more experience in my job," says Jimmy Raye, 38, of the Los Angeles Rams, who has been an NFL assistant coach for seven seasons and a college assistant for five and who now wants to become a head coach. Raye was considered for head coach of the Washington Federals, but didn't get the job.
"The proving ground to be an NFL head coach is to be an NFL assistant . . . But I know the way the game is played," Raye says. "Sure, it's frustrating."
"NFL coaches come mostly from two places: head coaches of major colleges and NFL assistants," says Gene Klein, owner of the San Diego Chargers. "There are very few black head coaches in the major colleges today; they are mostly in the smaller colleges.
"There are more and more black assistants in the NFL. It does take time. People do come up through the ranks . . . As far as I'm concerned, and I know the rest (of NFL owners), we are color blind. Whether a man is black, white, red or green, we're just looking for someone who can build a winner," Klein says.
This, however, is a fact: in the National Football League's 63 years, green men have been hired as head coaches as often as black men.
"It's a very complex situation," says John Thompson, Georgetown University's basketball coach. "Blacks have come a long way, but you have to remember that they started out with a disadvantage that dates back to slavery. Our standards come down from our ancestors. You can look at it this way: 'Look how far we have come. But look how far they have gone.' "
Consider the numbers:
In major league baseball, in which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, San Francisco's Frank Robinson is the only black manager and only the third ever. There are no black general managers.
In the National Basketball Association, in which 78 percent of the players on rosters at the start of last season were black, Seattle's Lenny Wilkens and Jones are the only black head coaches. (San Diego's Paul Silas was fired and Golden State's Al Attles retired as coach last season to become the league's only black general manager.) Furthermore, there were only four black assistants.
Besides the fact there are no black head coaches in the NFL, there are no black offensive or defensive coordinators or black general managers, either. There are no black head coaches in the USFL.
In the NCAA's Division I--not including predominantly black schools like Grambling State--there are only two black head football coaches, Northwestern's Dennis Green and Wichita State's Willie Jeffries.
Although there are more than a dozen black head coaches in Division I basketball (there are 274 Division I basketball programs), there are no black head coaches in Division I baseball. Kansas State's Dave Baker, who was the only black Division I baseball coach until he quit recently for personal reasons, said last month, "People are still astonished to see me sitting on the bench at games."
And Edwards is quick to add, "There are no black athletic directors in the major colleges in Division I, either."
For 10 seasons, Bernie Bickerstaff has been an assistant coach with the Washington Bullets. In the last two years, Bickstaff has been considered for seven NBA head coaching jobs; he interviewed for the opening at Cleveland last year, and at Chicago this year. In all, Bickerstaff, who is black, is zero for seven.
"I spoke to Jack McCloskey (Detroit's general manager) recently and I asked him, 'What can I do to enhance my situation?'" says Bickerstaff, 38. "He said that people thought of me as being content . . . I guess you just can't leave any avenues open."
"What you have to realize is that we are dealing with mores established over 200 to 300 years and that they are not changed in a matter of a few years," says Calvin Hill, former star NFL running back, now player relations consultant for the Cleveland Browns.
"I used to give opinions on how things should be done, to improve things," says Bobby Mitchell, a star wide receiver for the Washington Redskins in the 1960s, now the Redskins' assistant general manager. "I don't say anything any more. Now, I'm disgusted."
The effects are obvious. But what are the causes for so few black in sports management positions?
Some say it is discrimination. Others say it is the lack of role models. Some say that many blacks who might be qualified for sports management positions choose more lucrative, secure jobs in other industries.
"Everybody is not a Martin Luther King or a Jesse Jackson willing to go through the frustration," says Thompson, who in 1975, his third year as Georgetown coach, was greeted with a sign in the Hoyas' McDonough Gym that read, "Thompson, the nigger flop must go."
"If you're a black with a college degree and your wits about you," says Arthur Ashe, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup tennis team, "you probably don't want to work as a coach or in the front office. You can make more money working for Xerox or other corporations. We're still in the situation where if you are black and you have a college degree, you have some alternatives."
Others say that since whites control the committees that determine the decision-making process in sports (there are no black owners in the three major sports), they tend to hire other whites--perhaps friends, big names, people they are comfortable with, or maybe people with whom season ticket holders are comfortable.
Usually, they are not blacks.
"We have gone, I think, from the pre-Jackie Robinson era of Jim Crow," says Edwards, "to the post-Jackie Robinson era of what I call 'Mr. James Crow, Esquire.' It's a smooth, systematic way of maintaining inequities, but at a greater profit and greater level of exploitation of black athletic talent.
"People look at college basketball, see Houston playing North Carolina State in the championship game, they see all the blacks and think they are watching Nigeria playing Ghana. Then, they see the (head) coaches are white, but that there must be a black assistant coach. Really, this person is a head Negro in charge of Negro affairs on the team. Essentially, this means that there has to be somebody on the staff who talks jive . . . They say the Negro who sits by the door," Edwards says.
There are other views. Eddie Robinson is the 64-year-old head football coach of Grambling, who in 41 years has won 305 games, fourth most in NCAA history. He says, "Blacks have not been aggressive enough. We have not applied for the jobs. I don't think we can stand around, say 'I'm good, I'm black, come and get me.'
" . . . I know there are white boys who want to be running backs. How do they feel when they look around and see just about everybody is a black running back? Look at what is going on. You have to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes . . . We worked hard to get into basketball and football as athletes. Let's put that same aggressiveness toward management positions."
Robinson, who says he has been satisfied at Grambling, gave an example: "For the last couple of years, people have been concerned with stopping the San Diego Chargers' passing attack. Well, who knows more about the San Diego passing attack than James Harris (former Chargers quarterback, who is black)? So I asked James, 'Have you applied for a coaching job?' He said no. I told him he needed to apply to every team in the league and let them know about his availability . . . We can't stand around and cry black. You have to make things happen."
Klein says, "I've been majority owner since 1966. I know that in the coaching changes we have gone though since then, we have never had one black apply for the job."
And Bob Lurie, owner of the San Francisco Giants, who hired Frank Robinson, said a similar situation exists in baseball: "You have to remember, a lot of people, white and black, don't want to go to the trenches first. Frank was an outstanding player who went on to coach in winter ball. We didn't hire him because he was black. We hired him because he was the best qualified person for the job."
Why narrow the focus to blacks occupying management positions in sports? "Why don't we talk about how many black presidents of large corporations there are? Or how many black heads of departments?" says Eddie Robinson.
Mitchell has an answer: "If you're talking about corporations like Xerox and IBM and look at their top echelons, you won't see any black guys walking around. The difference is, none of these corporations have 55 percent of their employes who are black. The NFL does."
Robinson says blacks must continue to apply, apply, apply for the jobs. Ashe says perhaps a "mentoring system," whereby an owner takes an interest in an athlete's future while he is still an active player, might help.
"Like (Lakers owner) Jerry Buss signing Magic Johnson for 25 years. He is looking at Magic's career beyond his playing days," Ashe says.
Hill says it simply will take an owner with vision.
To which Sam Schulman, owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, who has hired three black coaches (Bill Russell, Bob Hopkins and Lenny Wilkens), says, "I'm not an owner with a vision. I'm an owner with good business sense. I went out and found the best coaches I could get."
Klein says the NFL's first black head coach will get his job thusly: "An opening. A qualified (black) man. Period. No mystery."
Thompson says, "Blacks didn't cause the situation ourselves. It's a historical event that is a fact. Logic and reason didn't cause the problem, so logic and reason won't solve it, either. In order for blacks to get hired, special situations will have to happen . . . It will take progressive thinking by young blacks and young whites."
Edwards agrees, and adds that more blacks will be hired as head coaches or general managers "when black society becomes concerned and when black athletes react . . . It's not enough to just discuss it."
In the meantime, the subject stays in the attic.