The most famous series of stories ever published in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED began with these words in the July 1, 1968, issue: "Sport I has long been comfortable in its pride at being one of the few areas of American society in which the Negro has found opportunity—and equality. But has sport in America deceived itself? Is its liberality a myth, its tolerance a deceit?"
One didn't have to read very far to get the answer. The title of the series made it clear:" "The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story." The shame was documented through five consecutive issues of the magazine by one of SI's star writers of the time, Jack Olsen. The first article in the series was titled "The Cruel Deception" and slapped readers immediately with a quote from the athletic director of the University of Texas at El Paso, who had an unusually large number of black athletes on his teams and who actually thought he was being quite fair-minded when he said, "In general, the nigger athlete is a little hungrier, and we have been blessed with having some real outstanding ones. We think they've done a lot for us, and we think we've done a lot for them."
Olsen went on to write: "The cliché that sports has been good to the Negro has been accepted by black and white, liberal and conservative, intellectual and redneck.... But Negro athletes do not agree. Almost to a man, they are dissatisfied, disgruntled and disillusioned. Black collegiate athletes say they are dehumanized, exploited and discarded.... Black professional athletes say they are underpaid, shunted into certain stereotyped positions and treated like sub-humans by Paleolithic coaches who regard them as watermelon-eating idiots."
That's how blacks saw their situation in the summer of '68. But what of the summer of '91? What has changed in the last 23 years? Beginning in this issue and continuing in future weeks, SI returns to the subject of the black athlete with a variety of stories. This week's articles include a survey by the polling firm of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman of the views of pro athletes on racial matters (page 44); a roundtable discussion with 10 athletes and sports leaders (page 48); an examination of how white America has embraced black superstars like Michael Jordan (page 54), and the first installment of a two-part examination of an explosive incident at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and its aftermath (page 60).
A central issue in the 1968 series was the exploitation of blacks by college athletic programs. The extent of that exploitation was eloquently—and angrily—delineated by Harry Edwards, then an assistant professor of sociology at San Jose State who was supporting a black boycott of that year's Olympics: "Black students aren't given athletic scholarships for the purpose of education. Blacks are brought in to perform.... Their primary responsibility is to the athletic department, and at the end of four years they wind up with no degree, no job and no references."
Today Edwards is a professor of sociology at the University of California and a consultant on racial affairs to Major League Baseball, the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors. His views on college sports are even fiercer than before. "It's worse than ever," he says. "Because there is so much more money at stake and so much more pressure to get that money, kids are targeted earlier, cut off from reality earlier, immersed in the competition for the big prizes earlier. Black society is a coconspirator in this. It peddles its kids to the highest bidder. When the kids get to a college, the college is supposed to do in four years what those kids' families and communities haven't done in 18 years."
Of course, in 1968 most southern college sports programs were lily-white. That, at least, has changed, and today the presence of black athletes—and black stars—is simply taken for granted at colleges in every section of the country. This is good, but a recent NCAA survey of the graduation rates for black athletes is not so encouraging: Of athletes who entered college in the 1984-85 academic year, a mere 26.6% of blacks graduated compared with 52.2% of whites. Congressman Ed Towns (D., N.Y.) spoke angrily about the situation last week during House subcommittee hearings on athletes' graduation rates: "I am outraged that blacks comprise only seven percent of all college students while black athletes make up 56 percent of college basketball teams and 37 percent of football teams. It's time we highlighted the fact that it is simply no longer acceptable for athletes—and particularly black athletes—to be used up as sports commodities and then discarded when their eligibility is over."
Another issue that arose in 1968 was that of "racial stereotypes" in sport, a nicely antiseptic term that translated into one of the ugliest of all white racist assumptions: that blacks are too stupid, too lacking in the so-called necessities to be qualified to fill either management jobs in sports or the "thinking" positions on teams—quarterback, middle linebacker, pitcher, catcher, point guard, etc.
Well there has been improvement in this area. In 1968 black quarterbacks were almost never seen except on black-college teams. In recent seasons Auburn, Georgia, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and USC—as well as last year's co-national champions, Georgia Tech and Colorado—have all started black quarterbacks.
There were also eight black quarterbacks on NFL rosters at the end of the 1990 season, and two of them, Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers and Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, were the starters in the '90 Pro Bowl. In 1988, another black signal-caller, Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins, was the MVP of Super Bowl XXII. Still, the NFL's record with black quarterbacks seems less impressive than it could be: Last season, according to figures compiled by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, 61% of the league's 1,300-plus players were black. The eight black quarterbacks constituted 9.8% of the league's 82 signal-callers, but as colleges turn out more black quarterbacks, the NFL numbers should continue growing.