Page: Stop focusing on athletic performance

Updated: February 27, 2007, 1:26 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

In the history of the NFL, few players have matched Alan Page's on-the-field and off-the field achievements.

The native of Canton, Ohio, played at Notre Dame, where he was a first-team All-American in 1966. He spent 14 years as a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. Page played in 236 straight games, was named the league's MVP in 1971, won a pair of defensive player of the year awards, played in four Super Bowls, was voted into the Pro Bowl nine times and made the Hall of Fame.

He earned his law degree while playing football. In 1992, Page became the first African-American elected an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. He was re-elected in 1998 and 2004.

Football -- sports in general -- is off-radar for Page these days. In addition to his court duties, he directs the Page Education Foundation, which helps minority and disadvantaged young people pay for college.

After he retires from the bench, Page, 61, is considering teaching as his next career.

"If I have the courage," he said. "Or the energy." Page talked about sports and race with ESPN.com on the occasion of Black History Month:

Alan Page
Joe Raymond/AP Photo"If you put the time into the classroom that you put into athletics there is no question they would have success," says Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Alan Page.
African-American athletes are among this country's most cherished heroes. What role, if any, has this had in altering racist attitudes among non-blacks?

I'm not sure that it has had a significant role. It's probably had some role because on the athletic field we have moved to a time where we have something resembling equal opportunity. Teams want to win so they'll use the best athletes they can find for whatever reason. Right now, in basketball and football, the majority seem to be African-American.

Charles Barkley said parents, not athletes, should be role models. Agree or disagree and why?

Clearly, we are influenced by those we can reach and touch. Not many of us can reach out and touch an athlete. What he was getting at was that parents have a responsibility to their children to be good role models. Some studies have shown that when you ask people who the most influential people in their lives were, they say their parents. We spend a lot time talking about athletes being role models. They would be better described as heroes who have athletic ability. That doesn't make them role models. Also, we have an ability to ignore in a perverse kind of way the negative conduct that we see our athletes engage in without calling their conduct into question. This probably at times is confusing for children.

In your view, what's the biggest issue today's African-American athletes have to deal with?

I think the biggest thing all athletes have to do with is maintain a sense of self-respect and try to be a person of good character as opposed to being somebody who simply is involved in the pursuit of money to the exclusivity of everything else. It goes beyond the pursuit of self-pleasure -- focusing on me and only me and excluding everybody else. I think, as athletes, we have a responsibility to those around us, like it or not.

When you played football, there was little on-the-field celebrating or other antics. Jim Brown said recently that such antics by African-American players reinforce racist stereotypes and need to stop. Your thoughts?

It certainly is distracting and, quite frankly, it's not something I really understand. As an athlete, the goal is to perform and perform well. Those antics don't add anything to the performance. In fact, they detract from it. You're using energy you might need for playing. I find it a bit embarrassing.

An African-American coach has finally won a Super Bowl. Blacks are gaining more heading coaching jobs in the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball and some front-office positions. But only seven of 119 Division I-A college football coaches are African-American. What needs to happen for that to change?

Progress has been slow, not only in the coaching ranks but in the front office. I think there needs to be more of an effort to give people [a chance] who have the interest and the ability to perform as a coach or in the front office. It is somewhat odd that when you have a disproportionate presence of African-Americans on the field, there are almost none in the management and coaching ranks.

Alan Page
Richard Drew/AP PhotoPage with the Minnesota Vikings in 1973.
As they pursue a dream of making it as a pro, life beyond sports is a concept some talented African-American athletes have troubling grasping. When they don't make it, they have limited choices. You're someone who clearly looked beyond sports. What's it going to take for young African-Americans to follow your example?

I think we have to stop overemphasizing athletic performance and underemphasizing academic achievement. That's a clear problem. We need to talk to young African-Americans, especially males, about being able to perform not only on the athletic field but in the classroom. If you can do one, you likely can do the other. If you put the time into the classroom that you put into athletics there is no question they would have success. From the time I was a child there has been an overemphasis on athletics for African-Americans, and we have to change that.

Your most satisfying accomplishment as a justice?

The work I do is so satisfying and challenging, it's very difficult to categorize one aspect of it as the most satisfying. I take enjoyment from trying to do it as well as I can.

How does it compare with success on the football field?

I don't know that there is a comparison. In my view, my success on the athletic field, which by some standards was pretty significant, in the end was basically entertainment. Its lasting value is questionable. Certainly, the work I do on the court affects real people with real problems and will be used and considered by courts well into the future. Hopefully, it will stand up to the test of time.

Name an African-American athlete, past or present, you admire and why.

Paul Robeson. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, he had the courage to stand up for what he believed in. You don't see a lot of that these days.

Favorite sports moment as a fan?

When my children were in high school, going to their events, whether it was soccer, cross country, track or basketball. I can recall when my daughter, Kamie, was a sophomore or junior in high school, she had the ball just beyond midfield and she kicked it. It looked like a pass, but it was clear she was taking a shot. The goalie didn't even realize it was a shot. And it went in.

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

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