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A Man of Substance
Rick Reilly
March 17, 2003
Which of this country's greatest sports legends is clenched-teeth against the Iraq war and the death penalty and is for gay rights?
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March 17, 2003

A Man Of Substance

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Which of this country's greatest sports legends is clenched-teeth against the Iraq war and the death penalty and is for gay rights?

Bill Bradley? Jim Brown? Bill Walton? Try Dean Smith.

In today's scandal-dripping land of college basketball, couldn't we all use a little Dean Smith? He wasn't just the winningest coach in history, he was one of the cleanest. In 36 years at North Carolina, he never had an NCAA violation. He was and is a man who stands tall for what he believes—fans, talk show hosts and his accountant be damned.

Smith is Abe Lincoln in a sports world of Stepford Jocks, where speaking out on social issues is likened to a Class A felony, where taking a stand is a good way to blow your car dealership endorsement, where somebody pressed MUTE on the social consciences of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Take the Toni Smith issue. She's the Manhattanville College guard who turned her back to the flag to protest what she calls the "inequalities that are embedded into the American system." Dean Smith would fight to the death to protect her right to do it.

"I'm sure it took a lot of courage," says Smith, who won 879 games at UNC. "Just as it took a lot of courage for Tommie Smith and John Carlos to [make their gloved-fist protest against racism in the U.S.] at the '68 Olympics."

Would he have let Jordan turn his back on the flag as a Tar Heel? "An individual has rights," says Smith. "You don't give them up when you put on a basketball uniform."

Smith has always thrown snowballs at top hats that way. He helped desegregate Chapel Hill restaurants in the early '60s by walking into one with a black theology student and sitting down to eat. He spoke out for a nuclear freeze in the early '80s. He allowed a player to skip practice to protest against the UNC cafeteria workers' low wages.

The son of a coach and a teacher, he always included a Thought of the Day at his practices, in which he'd offer a quote from, say, Martin Luther King Jr., and then start a discussion among the players. Imagine that: a coach interested in the mind of an athlete. No wonder Smith's program always had one of the highest Division I graduation rates.

In a state that gave us Jesse Helms, Smith's is a rare voice speaking out against the madness of a war in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the death penalty. It's a spiritual thing for him. "One doesn't kill," he once said. "I heard that in church."

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