Perhaps the one thing even Rush Limbaugh and Rasheed Wallace can agree on is that race was not a forgotten topic this year.
In September, Limbaugh claimed Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb received preferential media treatment because he is black—and a week later Limbaugh was vastly more famous. He was also out of a job. This month Wallace said that the NBA exploits its young black players—those $10 million contracts notwithstanding—and became the focus of outrage from commissioner David Stem, who called his remarks "ignorant and an insult to all NBA players." Wallace even drew criticism from former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who told The New York Times, "Rasheed is attacking an old scar where it doesn't exist." The angry Trail Blazer's profanity-laced diatribe echoed this one truth: White boys still am the NBA.
More telling than the reaction to Wallace's comments was the distinct silence that followed the firing of three African-American NBA coaches—Doc Rivers, Bill Cartwright and Frank Johnson—in the first few weeks of the season. Not long ago, given basketball's racist history, Jesse Jackson might have organized a protest or at least called a press conference. But not a soul was outraged because with 11 African-American head coaches in the NBA at the start of the season, Wrings are less likely today to be seen in black or white.
So maybe 2003 wasn't all that bad. On Dec. 2, four months after we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" oration, in which he spoke of Mississippi as "sweltering with the heat of injustice," Mississippi State hired Sylvester Croom as the first black head foot-ball coach in the Southeastern Conference. Then last week Georgia brought in Damon Evans as the conference's first black athletic director. Both moves could break down barriers far beyond the SEC.
In the NFL, meanwhile, longtime assistant Marvin Lewis joined the Bengals as the third active black head coach in the NFL—and turned the moribund franchise around. And it may have been a reaction to aggressive demands by lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri when the NFL issued 10 guidelines to bolster its year-old hiring policy, but the rules are strong. The policy says that at least one person of color must be interviewed as a candidate for each coaching vacancy. Each team must document every interview (telephone interviews no longer count) and the team's owner must be involved in interviews of all finalists. Breaking the rules brings tough penalties, including fines and the loss of draft picks. The Lions were hit with a $200,000 fine when the team failed to interview a candidate of color before choosing Steve Mariucci.
Elsewhere in sports, the almost all white NASCAR started Drive for Diversity, an expanding program to find and feature drivers and mechanics of color. It will develop drivers, who'll race in the Dodge Weekly Series on tracks in the Southeast, and crew members, who'll hit pits around the U.S. in the Craftsman Truck Series.
What is clear of course is that real change never occurs in a vacuum, nor without a push. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand. There can be no racial progress without pain. And if you're a black athlete, sometimes it's hard to see the progress. Only a few weeks ago the FBI revealed that some African-American NFL players have, for years, received letters threatening them with death if they associate with white women. "There's racism on the team. I've heard racist remarks in Philly," said Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell, a letter recipient. "It's real. Racism is there."
American sports reflect the best impulses of our nation and are also a faithful barometer of our worst. As with Jackie Robinson more man a half century ago, when sport overcomes its bias and injustice, it helps the broader society to do the same. In that light 2004 gives us good reason for hope.