Luther Campbell in fight for right to coach high school football in Miami
Former 2 Live Crew member is making a difference coaching high school football
Campbell coached three years on a temporary certificate, needs a permanent one
Administrative judge has recommended approving certificate; opposition remains
Miami Northwestern High's defensive coordinator stood before his players last month with a marker in his hand and a board full of plays at his back. "Any time in this game we're going to check goal line, I'm going to go Eagle," he yelled, referring to a blitz call. "We're going to hit the quarterback all night." The players nodded. Some smiled. Some scowled.
His pregame chalk talk concluded, the coordinator bounded over to the offense. He told those players to score so often that the host, Vero Beach High, would be forced to use a running clock in the second half. As he returned to the defensive side of the locker room, the coordinator noticed a young defensive tackle with his jersey hanging down to his hips. "Shirts in," he yelled, staring at the sophomore playing his first spring game with the varsity. Then the coordinator smirked. "We kick asses," he said, "with class."
The coordinator knows more about moving posteriors than he does about kicking them. Long before he became the coordinator -- before his players were even born -- he was known by several names. To his family and before the U.S. Supreme Court, he was Luther Campbell. To the fans who bought the raunchy albums he produced as a solo artist and as a member of 2 Live Crew, he was known as Luke Skyywalker (until George Lucas sued him), Uncle Luke or just plain Luke. To Tipper Gore and the others who called his music obscene, he was Public Enemy No. 1.
Now, Campbell wants to be known by one phrase: Coach Luke. In August, he'll enter his fourth season as a high school assistant coach -- if Florida's Education Practices Commission will let him. For the past three seasons (two at Miami Central and one at Northwestern), Campbell has coached using a temporary certification. That certification expires at the end of the 2012-13 school year. To continue coaching in Miami-Dade County after that, Campbell will need a permanent certificate.
An administrative judge has recommended that Campbell be allowed to coach, but last week the Florida Department of Education appealed that recommendation. In the appeal, the department's attorney, Charles Whitelock, wrote that "the Petitioner lacks the required good moral character" to coach students. The state has investigated Campbell's past and present, and the Education Practices Commission will have to decide sometime this summer whether it should allow one of the men behind Me So Horny -- and other songs whose titles aren't printable in a family publication -- to influence high-schoolers.
On May 15, Judge Robert Meale recommended that the Education Practices Commission approve Campbell's certificate. Shocked? Not half as shocked as the inner-city coaches and community leaders who can't believe this process has taken so long. To the nation, Campbell may be a symbol of when hip-hop went naughty. In Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, he is the man who started a youth football program and has kept it running strong for more than 20 years. He is the taskmaster who tracks down absent mothers to sign insurance forms. He is the coach who lets players stay at his house when they need a momentary escape from one of Miami's most dangerous areas. He is the man who encourages his players to get out of their troubled situations by going to college and graduating. He would love if they all made it to the NFL, but he knows that won't happen. He wants only for them to earn degrees so they can have what he has: a house in a safe neighborhood with a wife, a toddler and a Cocker Spaniel.
"You might not play a day in the NFL, but you can get an education," Campbell said. "That's your whole, primary goal. You can get your education and live a productive life and do something with yourself other than standing on the corner."
But Campbell is also the man who executive produced an album (As Nasty as They Wanna Be) that was declared obscene by a federal judge and who still makes club appearances trading on the fame he acquired as a performer.
Campbell's case brings up several fascinating societal questions. Among them:
How long should a man's past be held against him?
In a community that needs as much help as it can get, can the government afford to turn away a man who has demonstrated himself capable of creating positive change in the lives of young people because the way that man earns a living, while legal, is considered morally questionable by some?
An attorney named Kristin has asked that second question to herself a lot these past few months. "It's not a school that people are running in to help," she said of Miami Northwestern. "How are you preventing someone who is running in and helping as many people as he can?" Kristin isn't Campbell's attorney. She is his wife. They met at a deli during her second year of law school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Campbell, a diehard Miami fan, married Kristin in 2008 despite the fact that she earned a bachelor's degree at Florida State.
Kristin, an Army brat who went to high school in the Dallas area, didn't comprehend the kind of poverty that afflicts her husband's old neighborhood until they began dating. Campbell brought Kristin to visit his youth football program, the Liberty City Optimist Club Warriors, and work with the cheerleaders. Since Campbell began coaching at the high school level in 2009, Kristin has learned even more. Once, she didn't understand why a player had spent an entire weekend at the Campbells' house. Days later, the player told her he had seen a dead body near his home and fled to the place he considered the safest.
A visitor to Liberty City turns off Interstate 95 at exit 6B. Behind the wall that hides the neighborhood from tourists bound for Miami Beach, Coconut Grove and the Keys is a scarred landscape of sagging buildings. Northwestern High stands on Northwest 71st Street behind an iron fence. While the neighborhood has been depressed for years, the school and its football program have always provided a source of pride. In 2007, Northwestern's football team won the state title in Florida's largest division, and USA Today declared the Bulls the nation's best team. The school provides an oasis for students from the gangs that operate nearby, but eventually, those kids have to go home. In February, a Northwestern student named Brandon Allen was shot in the throat while walking home from school.
Campbell, 51, understands the neighborhood. He grew up in Liberty City. He was lucky. He had two parents who taught him to work hard. His Bahamian mother was a beautician, and his Jamaican father was a custodian. Campbell's four older brothers all graduated from college. But he still saw the drug dealing and violence that plagued the neighborhood, still had to hit the ground when he heard the gunshots.
The Miami-area travel brochures never mention Liberty City. Most of them focus on the glitz of Miami Beach. Every school day, a bus took a young Campbell across a causeway to that Miami. Beginning in junior high, Campbell attended school and played football in Miami Beach. At 10 or 11 every school night, that bus dropped Campbell back into the reality of Liberty City. He swore that if he ever made money, he would start a youth football league so elementary and junior high boys in Liberty City wouldn't have to board a bus to play.