“Pino, who’s your favorite basketball player?” Spike Lee’s character, Mookie, asks his overtly racist co-worker in “Do the Right Thing.”
More than any other aspect of life, sports are the stage where the sole barrier to success is talent. That is, sports are the world’s best example of a meritocracy, where skill is currency, where a racist like Pino could say his favorite basketball player is a black man.
But one must ask why.
It’s true, sports are often ahead of the times. Jackie Robinson broke the MLB’s “color barrier” nearly a decade before Brown v. Board of Education broke down “separate but equal.” Jason Collins signed an NBA contract as an openly gay man before Obergefell v. Hodges made the contract of gay marriage federally sacrosanct.
It’s certainly true that sports are predicated on talent. One does not get drafted because of a family legacy or a donation to a team. Sports, and therefore skill, are a ticket. A ticket out of bad upbringings, to new places, to new beginnings.
Yes, athletes’ talents are tickets.
And maybe that needs further deliberation. Sure, maybe we could conclude that sports were the one place Pino could see through his racism to admire Magic Johnson. But Mookie’s line of questioning continues.
“Who’s your favorite movie star?”
“Who’s your favorite rock star; it’s Prince. You’re a Prince fan….”
“It’s different,” Pino stammers. “Magic, Eddie, Prince… are not black. I mean, let me explain myself, they’re not really black. I mean, they’re black; but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”
At Yale, there has been a lot of discussion recently about our University’s failure to recruit, retain and tenure faculty of color. Jafari Allen, Elizabeth Alexander, Dixa Ramírez, Albert Laguna and Vanessa Agard-Jones have all left, or will be leaving, Yale. This conversation needs to continue. But there is a corollary problem, one which, on the surface, seems strange: there is a dearth of people of color in our athletic coaching, training and administrative staffs. I count 96 people on coaching staffs. Eighty-six are white. There are 35 varsity teams. Only four head coaches are people of color. While our new Athletic Director, Victoria Chun, is an Asian woman, everyone else in the Director’s office, the compliance office and the development office — save for Brian Tompkins, the sole person under “student services” — is white.
If sports are the one place where nothing other than the will to win and the talent to do so present obstacles, how can it be that our athletic department lacks such diversity?
The NFL currently has “two black coaches in a league where at least 70 percent of the players are African American.” The NBA has seven in a league where upwards of 70 percent of the players are also African American. The general management and ownership structures are certainly not better. The coaches and owners are not diverse; but the players? The players are. What does it mean to allow the best talent to make it to the league, but not own a stake in it? What does it mean for someone like Pino to disdain black people, but love to be entertained by them?
There is no doubt that one’s place on the field, court or ice is predicated on skill, more so than on any other stage. And there is no doubt on playground courts and middle school gyms that money and entertainment are not yet factors. But there is also no doubt that those talents, those tickets to something new, generate money. Altruism is not always at play when athletes play.
Maybe sports shouldn’t get such a quick pass — as I willingly admit I have always given them.
We don’t have much say in who is hired in the NBA or the NFL. But we do have a voice at Yale. And as we demand that Yale do a better job hiring and retaining faculty of color, we should demand that it hire people of color on the coaching staffs and in the athletic department as well.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org