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The firing of Bobby Williams and institutional racism

Media Muckraker

UM 49, 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 the charge.

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 ESPN’s 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 we’re moving in the right direction.” When asked to clarify his statement about whether race was a factor in his firing, Williams said he couldn’t answer the question.

On Nov 7, MSU’s 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 Wedlow’s statement that Williams’ firing had nothing to do with race. The consensus that evening, however, was far more critical than Wedlow’s 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, LSJ’s assistant editorial page editor, wrote a parodic defense of LSJ’s football coverage, underscoring its objectivity and exonerating itself for having had anything to do with William’s 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 MSU’s black football players feel about William’s 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 University’s 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 don’t speak up for fear of retribution that they would be labeled a malcontent while whites don’t 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 Dodd’s reflections. Writing in 1999, he pointed out that, “I don’t 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 Lansing’s mayor was black as was all of Lansing’s City Council. Imagine that MSU’s president was black as was the provost and all of MSU’s 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 MSU’s 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 MSU’s 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 of MSU.

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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