Legendary football coach Eddie Robinson had a stark message for star quarterback James “Shack” Harris when he left Grambling State University in 1969 to try his hand as a pro quarterback, then one of the whitest positions in sports: “Do not come back and say you did not make it because you are black.”
No worries. Robinson had prepared Harris rigorously, recruiting great receivers for him to play with in college and even hiding his speed and athleticism from pro scouts, lest they convert him into a receiver or defensive back. It was left to Harris to overcome the old lies about black quarterbacks not being smart enough, or lacking the leadership skill necessary to play at the highest level.
Harris became the first black quarterback to be a regular NFL starter and the first to win a playoff game. His pioneering career continued as a scout, and then as part of the first generation of black NFL executives.
Harris shared part of his story during “Dear Black Athlete,” a series of conversations about race and sports hosted by The Undefeated, which aired Sunday night on ESPN. The conversations, led by ESPN anchor Cari Champion, included sports figures and civic leaders reflecting on the still substantial racial challenges confronting the country nearly a half-century after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Speaking from Birmingham, Alabama’s, historic Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King held numerous mass rallies during the darkest days of segregation, athletes and sports executives from across the generations applauded the changes that have allowed sports rosters, some coaching slots and a growing share of front-office jobs to be filled by African-Americans. At the same time, they noted, the task remains incomplete.
Vanderbilt University’s David Williams II, one of a small handful of black athletic directors overseeing major college sports programs, said people have to be careful “not to confuse change with progress.”
“When do we become team owners? When do we become the commissioners?” he asked. He noted that while a growing number of women playing college basketball are black, there are more white men coaching the sport than black women.
In many ways, the racial challenges confronting athletes parallel those elsewhere in American society, the panelists said. Team executives have to overcome their biases and broaden their vision to see black candidates as viable for the decision-making jobs in sports. That also holds true for black athletes and their families, noted Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who is among the shrinking number of African-Americans in major league baseball.
“We are told we can only entertain,” he said. “But every team has doctors, lawyers, economists.” He said parents and young people who love sports should aspire to those roles as well.
The conversations come as a growing number of sports figures are using their wealth and celebrity to press for social change. Most prominently, the national anthem protests ignited by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the NFL to pledge $89 million to support grass-roots programs aimed at closing the gap. The deal caused a split among the protesting players, some of whom are bitter that Kaepernick remains unsigned, which they believe is a consequence of his bold stand.
Retired NFL star Anquan Boldin, one of the lead negotiators who hammered out the deal, was among the speakers. He said he believes Kaepernick is being blackballed. Nonetheless, he defended the deal with the owners, saying the players’ movement is bigger than one man.
“Our work in the black community can’t stop because one person is unemployed,” Boldin said. “If you are willing to take a stand, you have to be willing to deal with consequences, right or wrong.”
Polls have found that while a sizable majority of African-Americans approved of the NFL protests, most white fans did not. Boldin believed the protests were contributing to a slump in NFL revenue, making the league eager to address the demands of the protesters and get back to their core business of sports entertainment.
“We had specific asks from the NFL, and they obliged,” he said.
The conversations in Birmingham also touched on the question of gender equity in sports. WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike, a forward with the Connecticut Sun, noted that most women athletes are paid less than their male counterparts, a gap that reflects a wage disparity seen across much of the economy. For black women, the gap is even wider. By one measure, black women earn on average just 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Economists note the occupations men and women choose, experience levels and hours worked explain part of the disparity — but discrimination is also part of the problem.
Ogwumike said she earned $60,000 as her team’s top draft pick. The equivalent pick in the NBA would earn about $4 million. The NBA is more popular and generates much more revenue than the WNBA, of course. Also, the NBA’s 82-game regular season is more than double the length of the WNBA season. Nonetheless, WNBA players are highly skilled, even if they are underappreciated.
The pay gap aside, Ogwumike noted that her colleagues in the WNBA are well-informed and socially conscious. As evidenced by the teams that wore T-shirts protesting police shootings of African-Americans, they are also comfortable speaking up for themselves and for change in the broader society.
“In the WNBA, it is No. 1 to be a team player. And that is something that we try to touch in all aspects of our lives,” she said. “You see people that may not speak with their voices, but they speak with their actions. Whether it is wearing a certain T-shirt, whether it is going to a certain school and showing kids you can read and you can be who you want to be.”
“Dear Black Athlete,” a series of conversations on being a black athlete in the world today, will be broadcast on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET on Feb.11.