On a recent Tuesday afternoon outside the Blackburn Center on Howard University's campus, William P. Moultrie, athletic director at the most prestigious historically black college in the nation, made the following statement: "Whatever his reasons were, Bear Bryant did more for integration in this country than Martin Luther King."

Moultrie said it more than once. He amended it a bit Thursday, saying he meant "in athletics," not in general, and "in the state of Alabama," not the whole country. But by and large, Moultrie stood by his comment, and that's no insignificant stand. Moultrie is now in the middle of a firestorm. The quote, included in a story about a white football player at Howard, is on the tip of seemingly every tongue on campus. Howard alums, lots of them, are upset.

Bryant, you might remember, was one of the greatest football coaches who ever lived, and at one time, a man who built his reputation with lily-white teams. For most of his career, until he was well into his fifties, he didn't want those black boys playing at the University of Alabama and said so on television. At the same time, Martin Luther King was dodging bricks while trying to convince people that separate- but-equal was a misnomer. So the fact that Moultrie would utter such a thing has some people on and off the Howard campus comparing him to Al Campanis. Not good.

Moultrie is not known as a man who always says the right thing at the right time. And on the face of it, his Bryant/King statement sounds like one of the dumbest things any man with an iota of intelligence could say. Still, the issue of what role athletes, coaches and athletic events play in affecting race relations is one clearly worth exploring.

In 1966, Texas Western started five black players against Adoph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team (Rupp was the Bear Bryant of college basketball, maybe worse) at Maryland's Cole Field House. It was the first time a predominately white school had started five black players, and this game was for the NCAA title. Texas Western, now UTEP, won and permanently changed the way college coaches recruited. As a result, the very fabric of college basketball was altered forever. David Israel, a former Chicago Tribune columnist, called that watershed game, "The Brown vs. Board of Education of Basketball." It was not an overstatement.

Moultrie's comment also sounds suspiciously familiar, and Bryant was indirectly involved. Four years after Texas Western beat Kentucky, Sam "Bam" Cunningham of Southern Cal ran all over Bryant's Tide team in a season opener at Alabama. Three touchdowns, 230 yards. That performance led to two famous quotes. One was from Bryant, who was supposed to have said, "I gotta get me one of them {black players}." The other was from Jerry Claiborne, the former Maryland coach and Bryant protege who said Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had done in 20 years.

It wasn't as much what Bryant did; it was what he was forced to do. Bryant had wanted to recruit black players several years earlier, but was talked out of it by various interest groups around the state, including Gov. George Wallace. Once it became painfully clear, however, he couldn't win without the best players -- many of whom were black -- not even Wallace could stand in Bryant's way. Wilbur Jackson was the first black player who accepted a scholarship, for the 1971 season. Bryant said he changed, he grew, he matured. Ozzie Newsome, come on down.

The Civil Rights movement, like any popular cause, operates at two levels. Martin Luther King, while being actively involved in every phase, was usually appealing to America's intellect. But sometimes it takes a more practical approach, one much closer to the ground.

Millions of people, many of whom fill football stadiums on weekends, will only open their eyes when you convince them that change is in their best interest. What can you do for me? I can score three touchdowns and Alabama will win and you'll feel good until next Saturday. Well, since you put it that way, let's give it a try.

Is sports the great social equalizer? Of course not. Remember in Spike Lee's movie "Do the Right Thing" when Sal's oldest son says his favorite basketball player is Magic, his favorite comedian is Eddie Murphy, but he still doesn't want black people in his father's pizzeria? It reminds me of the day I walked into a bar with a colleague in Alabama after Auburn had beaten Georgia, hearing white Auburn supporters taunt Georgia fans by singing, "Our Bo's better than your Bo, our Bo's better than yours . . . " If you don't get it, just substitute the world nigger for Bo and you've taken the song from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Sitting in a football stadium and wrapping your arms around the season ticket holder next to you of a different race when the home team scores may numb the pain of racism for three hours on a Saturday afternoon, but it doesn't necessarily mean significant change has occurred.

On the other hand, the father who walks into his bungalow in staunchly all-white Cicero, Ill. -- the place Martin Luther King once described as one of the most racist towns in America -- to find a lifesize poster of Michael Jordan on his son's bedroom wall may find his prejudice may not carry over to his child's generation.

Sometimes sports and the people who play them transcend color and force us to open our eyes. Sometimes they provide a very false sense that what we see for three hours on the television is the way it is the rest of the day, away from the stadium.

Moultrie, if he still stands by his statement, should know the difference. He said the wrong thing.