Posted: Sunday October 30, 2005 9:23PM; Updated: Monday October 31, 2005 9:27AM
Fisher DeBerry's comments about race have the Air Force coach under fire, and got him reprimanded by the academy.
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During the past few days I have been hoping to wake up to read the following headline on, if not this Web site, then at least on theonion.com: Air Force names Paul Hornung recruiting coordinator.
OK, so maybe that's not funny. It was Hornung, you may recall, who in March 2004 told a Detroit radio station that his alma mater, Notre Dame, "can't stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned because we've got to get the black athlete. We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete."
Hornung's error, of course, was to correlate academic performance (read: intelligence) with ethnicity. You can make the argument that should Notre Dame (or any university) lower its academic standards then, yes, it allows them to recruit a greater number of high school athletes. But to single out black athletes as being the ones you'd specifically lower your standards for was racist.
Hornung, a sexagenarian legend who won the Heisman Trophy in 1956, paid dearly for his comments in the court of public opinion. Last week Air Force Academy coach Fisher DeBerry, another sexagenarian (he's 67; Hornung is 69) legend in the sport, uttered the most racially provocative comments since Hornung's.
Discussing one difference between his Falcons and TCU, a Top 25 team which had routed Air Force 48-10 in Colorado Springs the previous Saturday, DeBerry said it was clear that TCU "had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did ... It just seems to me to be that way. Afro-American kids can run very well. That doesn't mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can't run, but it's very obvious to me that they run extremely well."
And you have to imagine that as soon as those words came out of DeBerry's mouth, it got so quiet in that room that you could hear AlCampanis' name drop. Because, as we know, this is '05 and there are really only three people who can be completely candid about race with impunity: Charles Barkley, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock.
The media, though, has not crucified DeBerry for his comments. The ESPN duo that traffics common sense daily, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, agreed that DeBerry chose his words clumsily (I mean, "Afro-American"? I haven't heard that term since J.J. was proclaiming himself "Kid Dy-no-mite!"), but that he should not be fired for what he said.
On Saturday, I tuned in to ESPN's College Football GameDay because 1) it's the best damn sports show, period; and 2) I wanted to hear what Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso (or even studio analyst Mark May, who not only is black but often comes across as the sharpest wit in the ESPN college football stable) had to say about DeBerry's comments. I wanted to hear them opine on it because their passion and knowledge of college football is what gives them so much credibility.
GameDay is a 90-minute show. From what I recall, they devoted about 30 seconds to this topic. Fowler reported it straight, and the camera never left him as he discussed DeBerry's comments. Then they moved on. It made me wonder what the GameDay pre-production meeting the day before must have been like:
Producer: "Guys, we're going to have to tackle this Fisher DeBerry story. Kirk, Lee, what's your take on it? Who wants to go first?"
(Sounds of whistling, birds chirping)
Producer: "Guys? Kirk, you can argue that DeBerry's comments are blasphemous and then Lee, maybe you could rebut him with, "White guys are ... NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND!"
Fowler: "I'll take one for the team. Leave it to me."
I did not want to leave it at that. So I came into SI's offices this weekend and decided to to a little research. Because if you read DeBerry's comments again, he never (unlike Campanis or Jimmy The Greek or even Hornung) attempts to explain why he feels that black football players are faster. He just says that they are.
So, at the risk of being racially insensitive, but with my only purpose being to better discern whether what DeBerry said was politically incorrect or simply incorrect, here is what I did:
1. Establish a specimen group
DeBerry was referring specifically to speed. What are the speed positions in football? Can we agree that these positions (omitting special teams) are the ones that place a premium on speed?
That is seven positions on the 22-man depth chart. Might I have added quarterback? Arguably. Some schools emphasize a running quarterback (i.e., Brad Smith at Missouri) while others prefer a pocket passer (Matt Leinart, USC), thus I chose to ignore that position.
2. Limit our study
I don't have any grad students working for me, so I limited the scope of my study to the teams currently in the AP Top 25. I used each team's starting roster for their season-opening game, owing to the fact that as a season wears on, starters may be injured. True, a starter may have been injured during summer camp and may only be returning now, but, as I said, I'm only one blogger with only so much time.
Anyway, if you were counting, that's seven positions times 25 teams, giving us 175 players. What did I conclude? Well, to paraphrase Haley Joel Osment: "I see black people."
Twelve of those 175, or 6.9 percent, as best as I could determine from looking at media guide headshots, are white. Salami, from The White Shadow, alone comprised a greater percentage of white athletes on the Carver High hoops team.
The 12 players I counted were:
Scott Ware, FS, USC Jeff Samardzija, WR, Notre Dame Tom Zbikowski, FS, Notre Dame Kyler Hall, S, Florida State Ethan Kilmer, WR, Penn State Tre Smith, RB, Auburn Will Herring, FS, Auburn Mike Lorello, SS, West Virginia Matt Grimmett, WR, Texas Christian Josh Sherley, FS, Fresno State Dusty Sprague, WR, Colorado Evan Judge, WR, Colorado
There was not one white starting cornerback among the 50 positions available in this survey.
At Air Force, by the way, five of the seven starters at the speed positions are white, including the entire defensive secondary.
According to the '05 CIA World FactBook, the United States is 81.7 percent white and 12.9 percent African-American. Basically, white people outnumber black people in this nation almost 7 to 1. Whereas, in the speed positions among the current Top 25 teams in Division I-A, blacks outnumber whites almost 7 to 1.
Further, there is currently one white running back among the nation's leading 25 rushers. That would be Colorado State tailback Kyle Bell. One white tailback has led the nation in rushing in the past 30 seasons. That would be Nevada's Chance Kretschmer, whose 157.45 yards per game as a freshman in '01 was tops in the country. Kretschmer graduated last spring and was not chosen in the NFL Draft (although his 40 time -- 4.63 -- was faster than Maurice Clarett's) and is not on any NFL roster.
Were DeBerry's comments inappropriate? In the sense that you blame a lack of speed on your success, I'd say yes. It sounds like an excuse. But were they inaccurate? I'll let you decide.