Cleaver: Not all athletes are role models

Updated: February 7, 2007, 1:32 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II, a second-term Democratic congressman from Kansas City, knows sports. He played wide receiver at Murray State and dreamed of suiting up for his beloved Kansas City Chiefs until a knee injury ended his career.

Cleaver, 62, an ordained minister and senior pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, served two terms as Kansas City's first black mayor. He also served two terms as the president of the National Conference of Black Mayors.

Cleaver, who had 10 knee operations before a titanium implant helped him regain his mobility, says he's going to suit up for the annual charity football game between House Democrats and Republicans now that he can run again -- and because former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a rookie Democrat in the House, is on his team.

In recognition of Black History Month, Cleaver spoke with ESPN.com about race and sports.

Emanuel Cleaver
AP (2004)Emanuel Cleaver II, former mayor of Kansas City, now holds a seat in the U.S. House.
African-American athletes are well-represented in college and pro sports, but African-Americans are under-represented in coaching positions and front offices. What needs to happen for that to change?

Frankly, some of it is changing. When you see two African-American coaches in the Super Bowl, clearly that means some things have changed. But it would be foolish to conclude that this means all is well. Clearly, it is not. Look inside most organizations in the NFL and you see a small minority of African-Americans. In the college football ranks [where six of 117 coaches are African-American], the situation is abysmal. I don't see a big change coming on the college scene anytime soon. This nation is far, far slower than it would like you to believe.

Name an African-American athlete you admire.

I have a remarkable appreciation for [Negro Leagues player] Buck O'Neil, [who died in October at age 94]. I spoke at his funeral. … He was a man who knew no hatred. I was with him the day after he was rejected by the Hall of Fame. He never spoke one word of resentment. People used to tell him he should have been born 50 years later. He always said he was born just in time.

Charles Barkley once said parents, not athletes, should be role models. Agree?

I think Barkley perhaps said it in a cruel manner, but he made a good point. There was a time athletes could be role models because the media protected them. Who knew that the guy I grew up worshipping, Mickey Mantle, was an alcoholic? When Babe Ruth was hitting home runs, newspapers covered his exploits on the field, not what he was doing in nightclubs. Athletes could be role models because what kids saw, essentially, was all good. Today, it's different. Parents cannot expect athletes to give direction to their kids. First, athletes are [constantly] under the glare of the camera. Secondly, [some] athletes use their celebrity to promote outrageous behavior -- like Dennis Rodman, Terrell Owens, and Latrell Sprewell. We have a whole different class of athlete. In a sense, many of them are the antithesis of what is required of a role model.

Young and talented African-American athletes sometimes place professional sports above other goals. Many don't make it and are left with limited choices. What needs to happen for that to change?

I have three boys who all went to college on basketball scholarships. They all had a dream of playing in the NBA. As a parent, instead of pushing them I tried to be supportive of their athletic careers but, at the same time, I encouraged them to be realistic. Many families locked in poverty are pushing their children to succeed as a way out for the whole family. Many of these kids have unrealistic goals and we have to do something about that. One thing we can do is promote the success of African-Americans in other areas. [For instance], there are 43 African-Americans in Congress. One of the negatives of desegregation is that people with means and who had talent moved away from the urban core of the cities. So the [inner-city] kids can't walk out on their porch and see Dr. Lewis on his way to the office or Mr. Wilson going to pick up his Wall Street Journal.

You were a star athlete. Name the sport and your dream moment.

I've always seen myself catching that touchdown pass Otis Taylor caught in [Super Bowl IV, a 46-yard pass from Len Dawson for the game-clinching score for the Kansas City Chiefs.] I actually have run that touchdown play [in my mind] maybe 150 times. Each time I run it, the cornerback falls down. I can still see No. 89 running down the sideline.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@mail.iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.