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FIRST-PERSON: Gold medallist, embattled coach reflect nation’s racial condition

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Within the span of one week here in the South, we had two strikingly different examples of how wide the gap remains in understanding the problems of race in this country.

In one case, we saw a young African American woman, Vonnetta Flowers, receive a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Birmingham for becoming not only a gold medallist for the United States in the women’s bobsled at the Winter Olympics, but also the first of her race to win a gold medal in the winter games, period.

The 28-year-old Flowers grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods of Birmingham — a city once such a hotbed of racial conflict it was dubbed “Bombingham” by the national media in the 1960s — and through track, she went on to become a seven-time All-America at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Her future was expected to be as a medallist in the Summer Olympics, but in the Olympic trials of both 1996 and 2000, injuries limited her effectiveness and she failed to make the team either year. So as a lark, Flowers answered an ad placed from the U.S. Olympic Committee to try out for women’s bobsled — and she blew away the field. Eventually, that landed her a spot on the USA 2 team, which won the gold in Utah.

“I always thought God had planned for me to win a medal, but I never dreamed it would be the winter games,” said Flowers, a committed Christian who is very open about her faith and how it has sustained her. “It shows you never know what God has in mind. This is beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”

At almost the same time, in Fayetteville, Ark., Razorbacks basketball coach Nolan Richardson was blowing up, implying that he was treated differently than other coaches at the University of Arkansas because of his race, saying “I don’t play on the same level” as other coaches at the university, where he is the only African American head coach.

The 60-year-old Richardson is a sure Hall of Fame coach, having taken the Razorbacks to two Southeastern Conference championships, 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, two Final Fours and one national championship (1994). But Richardson grew up in El Paso, Texas, and came up as part of a generation that had to kick doors down in the struggle for racial equality. He was one of college coaching’s trailblazers, paving the way for today’s younger generation of black coaches. Richardson became the first prominent black head coach in the Southeastern Conference when Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992, breaking the barrier for current black SEC basketball coaches like Tubby Smith at Kentucky and Rod Barnes at Ole Miss.

His allegations weren’t any more subtle than the way Richardson’s teams play basketball. He said the all-white media that regularly cover Arkansas basketball and the team’s fans were unfairly out to get him because he’s enduring what could be his second losing season in 16 years with the Razorbacks, and the only reason for the furor is because he is black.

“I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on,” Richardson said. “I know that. You know that. And people of my color know that. And that angers me.”

In Flowers’ case, we see an example of just how far race relations have progressed in this country. In Richardson’s case, we see the bitterness and suspicion — even if indefensible and perhaps downright wrong (there is much that could be said about Richardson’s outbursts, but we’ll save that for another day) — that still exists, particularly in older black Americans who know firsthand how hard it has been to be treated equally.

The truth is, we’re still very uncomfortable talking about race in America — particularly in sports, where we see black Americans having made so much progress, perhaps even dominating the playing field, not only athletically but financially. Trust me, as a sports columnist, I have felt the wrath of both races when I attempt to take on the subject in almost any manner.

We like to use sports to feel good about how far we’ve come in terms of racial problems in this country. We look at black athletes like Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds and any number of NFL stars, see all that money and fame, and figure it must not be too bad to be a black American.

But, as Charles Barkley once said, “Just because I’m doing well doesn’t mean everybody is doing well.”

We have to be careful not to let sports distort the truth about society and give us a false sense of comfort. Now and then, we need to look beyond the boundaries of the games we pay to see and remember that, for all the distance we’ve covered in achieving equality, it isn’t a problem that is solved in one or two generations.

In college athletics, there are very few black head coaches in the most important sport on any Division I campus — football. When last season started, out of 117 Division I football programs, there were only five led by minority coaches. That can’t be right. (At the same time, it must be noted that out of the over 300 Division I basketball programs, there were 159 minority coaches, so there has been progress made).

We Christians are hardly immune from the segregation. Study after study says that 11 o’clock Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. Study after study says that even for white evangelical Christians, the problem is perceived as not possibly being as great as “the media” portrays it; while black Christians feel “the media” doesn’t talk about it enough, that the race problem is so much a part of our society that it may never be overcome.

The truth? Well, the truth, as it always seems to be, is probably somewhere in between.

Certainly we can feel good about the successes of the Vonnetta Flowers of this country, who have been able to take advantage of the progress made in race relations to make a better life for herself than her family ever had; who now has a chance to be held up as a role model and an encouragement to young people of every race who have a dream.

But at the same time, when we hear the Nolan Richardsons of this country play what we so often derogatorily refer to as “the race card,” let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the problem isn’t still very much alive and very real throughout the world.

The worst thing we can do is not talk about it. It’s no easier for a black person to impartially discuss race relations than it is a white person, but if there is anything sports has done for race relations in this country, it has allowed a generation of Americans to grow up with heroes who are both black and white. My two white children wear their Kurt Warner jersey with the same pride they do their Eddie George jersey, and it never occurs to them to care that one is white and one is black.

Maybe that’s just a small victory, in the bigger picture of racial reconciliation. But it’s a victory, nonetheless.
Melick is the lead sports columnist for the Birmingham Post. His column appears regularly in BP Sports.

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  • Ray Melick