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Thursday, February 28, 2002
The man who would be King in the Sports Arena

By Dr. Harry Edwards
Special to ESPN.com

The Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson's interest in the fortunes and fate of blacks in American Sports probably dates back to his own experiences as a scholarship quarterback at the University of Illinois in 1959. Though the record shows the Fighting Illini already had a black quarterback and that Jackson left Illinois at the end of his second semester after being placed on academic probation, over the years he has insisted that he left Illinois for North Carolina A&T because he realized his white coaches would never permit a black athlete to play quarterback on the predominantly white football team.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Jesse Jackson was Martin Luther King Jr.'s right-hand man during the Civil Rights Movement, and remains in the shadow of King's legacy some 34 years after his death.
Conflicting versions of this aspect of the Rev. Jackson's athletic biography notwithstanding, as a native of East St. Louis, Ill., who is intimately familiar with the racial culture and climate of Illinois' campus in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a former scholarship athlete who attended a traditionally white university during that same period, I have documented the combination of culture shock and discrimination encountered by black athletes of that generation. And while my experiences ultimately compelled my role throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s during what came to be called "The Revolt of the Black Athlete," the evolution of Jesse Jackson's priorities and ambitions led him to pursue a much grander scope of protest and political interests.

Over the course of involvements that have ranged from the pulpit to the protest lines and from the playing fields to pursuit of the presidency, Jesse Jackson not only has sought actively and by design to assume the national black leadership mantle of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but he has aspired to exceed that leadership legacy by projecting himself to the forefront of political issues and change efforts in arenas in which Dr. King took little or no direct interest or action.

In some cases, such as foreign affairs, though the Rev. Jackson's activities have been episodic -- not to say opportunistic -- there can be little argument but that he has had demonstrable success: his securing of Syria's release of a U.S. Naval pilot, his negotiation of the release of 48 Cuban-Americans from Cuban jails and of three American pilots from Iraqi detention, among other achievements. But in one realm eschewed by Dr. King -- sport -- the futility and failure of Jesse Jackson's efforts are as evident as these foreign affairs accomplishments.

At first, it appears both telling and ironic that the illustrious Rev. Jackson would have far greater success in persuading foreign dictators to free American war prisoners and others held as enemies of the state than in convincing National Football League owners and collegiate athletic directors to hire black head football coaches. That he would have greater success getting a black man out of a Syrian military prison than getting a black man into a manager position in Major League Baseball.

Upon closer analysis, however, it becomes evident that circumstances at the interface of race, sport and American society are much more complicated, much more difficult to sort out, and not nearly as amenable to moral or clear political articulation as the situations of soldiers and citizens caught in the cross fires of international tensions or conflicts.

In the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and '60s, a situation of almost total black institutional segregation -- in housing, education, jobs, medical care, and even religion -- had allowed Dr. King to speak from a single perspective and disposition relative to the circumstances of black people in America. He became the authoritative voice on "black issues" and was viewed as the principal arbiter of the legitimate black perspective in American social and political affairs.

Sport, too, was at the time an arena of substantial segregation, notwithstanding the "breakthrough" impact of Jackie Robinson's athletic achievements and civil rights legacy in sports. In fact, what had been achieved in sport by the mid-1960s was not "integration" at all but a significant "fracturing" of the total segregation that had existed. This "fracturing" allowed for the development of "islands" of black opportunity and even some realms of increasing black dominance, such as in basketball and boxing, within a larger institutional context of intractable overall white social, economic and political control of sport.

Dr. King and other civil rights leaders of the day probably determined that they should not "rock the boat" or otherwise disrupt sport's alleged progress by projecting the protest movement into that arena. Sport, as then widely viewed, really belonged to the "toy department" of civic affairs and relative to other, more serious areas of concern was of low civil rights priority. By the time that Jesse Jackson had established himself in the media as the preeminent black American leadership voice, the dynamics of the black struggle in both sport and society had significantly changed.

All the world is not the same stage
Television had been integral to the rise of black fortunes in and outside of the sports arena. It had brought the civil rights movement onto center stage and into the living rooms of America, in the process exposing the scope and depth of racist discrimination in America.

Jesse Jackson
When Muhammad Ali learned he had Parkinson's disease, Jesse Jackson was there to lend his support.
Television, to no small degree, legitimized and made celebrities of the movement's leadership through its coverage of the causes they represented and the issues they so forcefully articulated. Merely by lending his voice, presence and media magnetism to an issue, Dr. King had been able to elevate it to immediate newsworthiness. In this fashion, many otherwise obscure local issues and countless otherwise faceless and anonymous black people came to be the focus of national media attention.

In sport, however, there was a major and seminal difference relative to the impact of television on black fortunes. Heightened and expanding television exposure for black athletes, and the financial opportunities this created for them, elevated these athletes in both visibility and celebrity. In consequence there developed a burgeoning gap between the circumstances of the black athlete and black people more generally.

Though both suffered racial discrimination to some degree, the circumstances of black athletes and those of black people more generally presented different challenges to civil rights leaders who would intervene on their behalf. When black civil rights leaders took up an issue on behalf of everyday black people they created a stage and forum; when black civil rights leaders took up an issue on behalf of black athletes, they increasingly were left to share an existing stage where they could only hope to be temporary and substantially marginal role players.

In the pre-Dr. King past, then, to the extent that civil rights leaders were successful in leveraging any measure of change in sport, their relevance faded almost immediately, even in the minds and lives of those blacks who potentially benefited most from their efforts. Likewise, none of the "race men" who organized, petitioned and lobbied for the "racial integration" of mainstream professional sports in post-World War II America ever achieved any official standing in the sports establishment they engaged, and after the onset of "integration" in baseball, football, and basketball they were, for the most part, quickly forgotten.

Equally as instructive is the fact that when these advocates of expanded black opportunity failed in their efforts, their exit from the sports scene was even speedier and substantially unchronicled, if not utterly unnoticed.

Fracturing of the constituency
With civil rights successes in the broader society and a moderation in the 1960s' militancy of the movement, the challenges facing black leaders became even more complicated. The successful fracturing of segregation resulted in a corresponding uneven fragmentation of circumstances and interests within the black population.

Jesse Jackson
After two failed presidential races and 10 years in Washington, Jesse Jackson returned to the foundation of his original mission
-- preaching change.
There was emerging a small but highly visible new upper class of relatively wealthy professional athletes, artists and writers, entertainers and entrepreneurs. There was also a greatly expanded and educated black middle class. And there were the blacks who populated the urban centers in growing numbers and who found themselves in ever deepening circumstances of under-education, unemployment and increasing unemployability.

No single black leader could have hoped to address such a diversity of black realities from a single political disposition. By the mid- to late 1970s, some leaders and leadership organizations had virtually foundered in the face this challenge, losing their focus and sense of direction in the complicated new black world. For more than a decade this was the fate of both the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People and the organization that Dr. King once headed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Some leaders opted to focus upon a single cause or issue, as in the case of the National Urban League which reverted to its traditional emphasis upon black economic development. Yet other leaders determined to concentrate on addressing the problems of the lowest in black society under the strategy that "a tide that raises those boats mired deepest in the mud raises all boats." And then there were those leaders who persisted in efforts to address the highly diversified concerns and interests of the total black population, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his operation P.U.S.H. (People United to Save Humanity) being chief among them.

The results were often as inevitable as they were uneven.

No single would-be leader or organization can develop, support and sustain the personal credibility and the strategic capacity to provide effective and respected leadership across so broad a spectrum of diverse black circumstances. Under conditions of near total black segregation, a leader such as Dr. King could at least creditably project the pretense of there being a single black policy perspective, of there being a legitimate black political orthodoxy.

But under fractured segregation and the spectre of a black population fragmented by a rising diversity of class, institutional interests and involvements, substantively all-encompassing national leadership has gradually deteriorated into "celebrity leadership." As the would-be leader projects his name and presence into cause after cause, as he is seen running from crisis to crisis and camera to camera, he raises suspicions of having neither the sustained commitment nor the necessary credentials to stay the course of any particular issue or struggle over the long term. Ultimately, Jesse Jackson's track record in sports epitomizes the end game of the "celebrity leadership" syndrome.

Other factors unique to sport have compounded the challenges faced by the Rev. Jackson in this arena. Sport, overall, offers a small number of opportunities relative to most other career options. Opportunities to achieve one of the high-profile, high-prestige, high-paying front office positions are even more limited. There are, furthermore, no generally accepted, much less standardized or objective criteria for determining who merits access to such positions.

In the end, owners at the professional level and athletic directors at the collegiate level typically follow their "gut feelings" about who is the best job candidate. And not even the Rev. Jackson, with all of his oratorical skills and abilities, can logically, morally and persuasively gainsay a "gut feeling."

As Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis said about his criteria for picking a head coach: "We hire a coach and we win the Super Bowl. That's how we know that it was the right move." Coincidentally, Al Davis was also the first NFL owner to hire a Hispanic head coach and, later, the first black head coach.

Indeed, it has upon occasion appeared that one way to virtually assure that a particular black candidate will not get the job in question is to have Jesse Jackson trumpet his qualifications, much less demand that he be hired. No owner or athletic director would risk being seen to have caved in to Jesse Jackson.

The cause is not the same
Jesse Jackson remains disconnected to the black athlete. Certainly, none have come thundering at his call. Some few even have grown suspect of his motives and have wondered aloud whether it is Jesse Jackson or black opportunities in sport that he is really promoting.

Jesse Jackson
Even when the prospects of change seem unrealistic, Jesse Jackson has extended his hand to help the cause.
For my part, I believe that the Rev. Jackson is sincere. But over the years, it also seems that the futility of recurrently casting himself at center stage and in a would-be leadership role in sport is, in part, itself responsible for provoking and raising the issue of a hidden personal agenda in the minds of many both inside and beyond the sports arena. Indeed, Jesse Jackson has never been able to demonstrate how his objectives would translate into athletic success no less than in moral democratic victory.

And there is this related point: In every instance where black opportunity in sport has been substantially expanded, it has happened in large part because whites stood to gain more from that expansion than they currently enjoyed under the status quo. The fracturing of sports segregation meant white institutional access to a pool of black athletic talent and black fan dollars that, theretofore, had been inaccessible.

The hiring of black head football coaches at colleges such as Wichita State, Wake Forest and Northwestern in the late 1970s and 1980s, and at San Jose State in 2001 and Notre Dame in 2002, all followed a pattern encountered by the majority of black candidates who have gotten serious consideration for head coaching jobs at traditionally white Division I institutions. Outstanding black head coaching candidates were granted opportunities at either "death bed" football programs or they were offered the jobs only after comparably or even less qualified white candidates turned them down.

No one, including Jesse Jackson, has devised a change strategy for sport that would so expand the economic and athletic advantages and rewards gained by whites and white institutions as to compel them to open up ownership, front-office, and head coaching and managing positions to at least representative black access and incumbency.

The Don Quixote of Sports
Until the unlikely event that black athletes and other blacks holding positions in sports organize to push the Jackson sports agenda ahead of their own personal career aspirations and organizational goals or, alternatively, until a strategy evolves from whatever source that promises a compelling expansion in white economic and athletic rewards in the wake of changes advocated by the Rev. Jackson, the futility and failure of his efforts will continue.

When someone cannot see or refuses to acknowledge the reality of such circumstances, it is a consequence of ignorance, blind faith or idealism. Or perhaps he simply is perpetually lost in the dark shadows of his own gargantuan ego and literally cannot envision the need to change strategies and tactics.

Then too, there is much to be said for continuing to march on behalf of a cause even when one is clearly marching up the down escalator.

Irrespective of which pertains in the case of Jesse Jackson, the combination of his approach and personality and the dynamics of sport and the factors that have thus far configured the direction and substance of its evolution practically guarantee that he will continue to emerge from confrontation after confrontation not as the "Dr. King of the Athletic Arena" but, at best, as the "Don Quixote of Sports," fitfully and futily jousting at the sport establishment and its racial traditions but undaunted by his failure to significantly impact either.

Dr. Harry Edwards, recognized as the leading authority on issues of race and sports, formed San Jose State University's first black student organization and instigated the famous demonstration at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City in which two African-American medalists raised their gloved fists in symbolic gesture of the struggle for black power and equality. On sabbatical as professor of sociology at the University of California, Edwards is presently Director of Parks and Recreation in Oakland, Calif., as well as a consultant to Major League Baseball, the NBA's Golden State Warriors and the NFL's San Francisco 49ers on issues of racial diversity. He is also the autor of "The Struggle That Must Be," "Sociology of Sports," "Black Students" and "The Revolt of the Black Athlete."