firing of Bobby Williams and institutional racism
MSU 3, a gridiron humiliation. MSU Athletic Director Ron Mason later
went back on his word and fired his friend Coach Bobby Williams,
a black. In effect, Williams was humiliated twice, once as a failed
general, the second time as a scapegoat.
But was Williams also fired for a third offense: CWB coaching
while black? The Lansing State Journal has taken a clear position on
this question, answering a resounding, No. The Gannett publication
chastised MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson for playing the race
card, calling his comments which raised race as a
factor in the dismissal a lapse of judgment and leadership.
The LSJ then called on President Peter McPherson to publicly refute
In fact, the evidence of subtle institutional racism is strong.
In a prepared statement,. Ferguson said, What is now incredibly
disappointing to me is that MSU, under the cover of night, has decided
to ignore the facts, ignore the precedent, and damage its reputation
of fairness and commitment to diversity. . . .I will let others draw
their own conclusions. I know the conclusion I will draw from the events
of this evening.
Williams seemed to draw similar conclusions. Like Ferguson, Williams
expressed his concerns with a careful aura of vagueness. In an interview
with ESPNs Jeremy Schaap, he said, I would hate to say race
played into this, but I believe there were a lot of factors that played
into this dismissal
in some cases, my record is better after
three years, which points to that were moving in the right direction.
When asked to clarify his statement about whether race was a factor
in his firing, Williams said he couldnt answer the question.
On Nov 7, MSUs Black Student Alliance began an inquiry into the
question. More than 200 people voiced their opinions, with many charging
that Williams was not given a sufficient chance to prove himself because
he was black. Both WLNS-6 and The State News gave inordinate coverage
to junior linebacker Monquiz Wedlows statement that Williams
firing had nothing to do with race. The consensus that evening, however,
was far more critical than Wedlows view. The alliance said it
would disseminate the ideas discussed and construct a plan of action,
including, perhaps, a march to support Williams.
In a column on the MSU controversy, Derek Melot, LSJs assistant
editorial page editor, wrote a parodic defense of LSJs football
coverage, underscoring its objectivity and exonerating itself for having
had anything to do with Williams firing. It was simply reporting
the facts. Melot implied that the LSJ always covers the obvious
and pertinent questions and is going to keep doing it, too.
But the LSJ now criticizes those, like Ferguson, who raise the obvious
and pertinent issue of racism. Importantly, no media outlet has conducted
an investigation to surmise how the majority of MSUs black football
players feel about Williams ouster.
Here are some disturbing facts. If you look at college football as a
racial pyramid, at the bottom. 50.6 percent of the Division IA scholarship
athletes are blacks. Now look at the top. In 1997, there were eight
black head coaches in Division 1A schools (an all-time high). The number
fell to six in 1998, five in 1999, four in 2001 and now, with Williams
ouster last week, three in 2002.
In an excellent Sept. 30 article, Same Old, Same Old, in Coaching
Circles, re-published in Northeastern Universitys Center
for the Study of Sport in Society, Richard Lapchick noted, Various
assumptions have been made by some athletics directors who did not consider
African-American candidates. Among some frequently heard doubts behind
closed doors were the feelings that African-Americans cannot lead white
players, that African-Americans cannot work with white alumni organizations,
and that African-Americans would be unable to raise the funds to support
a big time football program.
Lapchick cited the work of Fitz Hill, whose thesis found that African-Americans
dont speak up for fear of retribution that they would be labeled
a malcontent while whites dont speak up for fear of retribution
if they were thought to be politically incorrect. The result
is that real feelings are being suppressed and the undercurrents of
stereotypes and covert racism are left to fester.
Perhaps the best way to understand institutional racism is to consider
writer Dennis Dodds reflections. Writing in 1999, he pointed out
that, I dont think we need to know anything more than the
Eddie Robinson story. As this college football season began, many debated
whether Bobbie Bowden or Joe Paterno will hold the all-time record for
wins in college football. Most seem to have forgotten that Eddie Robinson
[of Grambling] had 80 victories more than either one of these giants
by the end of his incredible career. He sent more athletes to the NFL
then any other head football coach in the history of college football.
His athletes graduated at nearly a rate of 80 percent in a sport where
the rate is nearly 50 percent. In spite of this amazing record, Robinson
was not only never hired by a Division IA school but was never offered
an interview. I think that tells the story even more than the numbers.
Williams career numbers of 16-17 were respectable and not
that much different from his two (Caucasian) predecessors, Nick Saban
and George Perles at a similar stage in their MSU careers.
If you are Caucasian, I ask you to imagine that Lansings mayor
was black as was all of Lansings City Council. Imagine that MSUs
president was black as was the provost and all of MSUs Board of
Trustees (but one). Imagine that the local media was 95 percent black
and that 90 percent of Greater Lansing was African American as well.
Now imagine that MSUs football coach was a Caucasian and was sacked
under questionable circumstances. How might you feel?
I call on the MSU Board of Trustees to call for an investigation of
institutional racism within MSUs football program and indeed,
within the university at large. Unlike the LSJ, which encourages McPherson
to deny that racism had any bearing on Williams firing, I encourage
this institution of higher learning to take the other path and use this
event as a teachable moment.
If life were only as simple as the LSJ perceives it. Instead of investigating
the more complicated aspects of this story, the LSJ simply wants McPherson
to anoint the emerging consensus and maintain an untarnished vision
Alex Peter Zenger is the pen name for the Media Muckraker. It is inspired
by the work of John Peter Zenger, one of the founding fighters for press
freedom in the United States.
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