Feinstein: Race Still An Issue In NCAA

One week ago, I wrote a column in The Washington Post about Charlie Strong’s impending demise at Texas. After his team lost to 1-9 Kansas the previous week, there really wasn’t any doubt that he was going to be fired.

At the very beginning of the column I wrote that there was no way a coach at Texas could survive with a three-year record of 16-20 (now 16-21) and, in fact, very few coaches would get a fourth year at an FBS school with that kind of record.

I then went on to remind people that Strong had started his tenure at Texas from, “behind the eight-ball.” Why? Well, for starters, Texas’s most powerful booster, Red McCombs, had gone on a radio show nine days after Strong’s hiring and called the hiring, “A kick in the face.” He then went on to say that Strong—who had been 22-3 in his final two seasons at Louisville—would have made, “a great position coach or maybe a coordinator.” He added that Texas could hire, “anyone it wanted.”

That wasn’t true. Texas had courted Nick Saban and didn’t get him. So it couldn’t get anyone it wanted.

After quoting McCombs verbatim from his radio interview I went on to say that there were, in my opinion, ‘racial undertones,’ to McCombs’ comments and I was pretty confident he wasn’t the only Texas booster who felt that way.

I added that there was no doubt they all would have accepted Strong with open arms had he gone 9-3 his first season, 10-2 his second and 11-1 his third. He went 6-7, 5-7, 5-7. By the middle of his second season there were rampant rumors he was about to be fired. Last Saturday, it finally happened.

I knew when I wrote the column that it would hit a nerve with a lot of people. Why? Because, as I’ve written and said before, race is the third rail of American politics today. It is the elephant in every room, whether the issue is police treatment of African-Americans; Colin Kapernick’s protests or the absolute paucity of minority coaches and managers across the board in all sports.

Strong’s firing means there are now SIX African-American coaches at the 65 Power-five football schools. That’s less than 10 percent in a sport in which about 60 percent of the players are African-American. The longest tenured of those five? David Shaw at Stanford, who is just completing his sixth season.

And so, a couple of days later, when I went to the comments section at the end of the column, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see that, in the eyes of most of those posting, I was the issue, not Strong; not McCombs; not the issue of minority coaches.

To a large degree, I get this. Most people only post things or send e-mails or go on twitter when something upsets them. I’ve tried to make it a habit of writing to people when I like something I read because I know that sort of thing (people writing to say they liked something) doesn’t happen that often. One reason I frequently don’t bother reading posts is because they’re predictable and, because anonymity breeds courage, not to mention nastiness—or worse.

My wife tends to read posts and comments too often and makes the mistake of taking them personally. I really don’t. You know the old saying: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

What was troublesome about this set of comments though was that it reminded me—again—how much anger, most of it WHITE anger, there is these days on the subject of race.

Many commenters ranted about ‘liberal elites,’ like me who want to ALWAYS make race the issue. Sadly, race is often the issue. I’m also confused by that term, ‘liberal elites.’ First, the dictionary definition of a liberal is, ‘someone who is open to ideas.’ When did that become a bad thing? Elite implies that one is part of a very small group at the top of a ladder—whether it be intellectual, athletic or financial. Is there anyone more financially elite—at least according to him—than Donald Trump? Yet, he and his supporters constantly use both words—liberal and elite—as putdowns.

Quite a few commenters went on at length about what a lousy coach Strong had turned out to be and that he deserved to be fired. I WROTE that he deserved to be fired. A couple even wondered if I had quoted McCombs accurately. The quotes came from the transcript of the radio interview.

More than anything, what got my attention was the ANGER in so many of the comments. Why would they be so upset that I believed there were racial undertones to McCombs comments? My God, there are racial undertones to almost everything going on in this country right now—except when the issue isn’t subtle at all but right in all our faces.

Almost a year ago, the NCAA, not exactly a ‘liberal elite,’ organization was concerned enough with the paucity of African-American coaches in football and basketball to form an ad-hoc committee to look into ways to increase diversity—in terms of both race and gender—across the board.

This fall it asked schools to sign a pledge saying that each would make full effort to prepare minorities for upper-level managements jobs and to give them a fair shot to be hired.

When I wrote a column about that several weeks ago, most of the responses were also negative. Many—MANY—said if the NCAA was concerned with diversity it should try to get more whites onto the playing field, since football and basketball teams rarely reflect the percentage of blacks and whites in the student body. On the other hand, many argued that hiring coaches should be based strictly on ability and diversity was irrelevant.

So, in the case of athletes, diversity SHOULD be taken into account so more whites could play. In the case of the coaches, the heck with diversity.

One very reasonable Texas graduate sent me a note through my website, defending his alma mater, saying that Strong had been given a ‘blank check,’ to hire his coordinators and had ‘whiffed,’ three times. One would expect a school that commits $27.5 million to a coach to give him a blank check when hiring assistant coaches.

If he failed—as he apparently did—he gets fired.

The issue I was writing about wasn’t whether Strong deserved to be fired; it was about the fact that there are people—many people—who are still affected by the issue of race—on both sides. A lot of the anger though, especially in the last eight years, has come from white people who just don’t want to believe—or hear—that the world is still a tougher place if you’re African American than if you’re white.

Sorry folks, it is.

I should also say that I got quite a few notes from people complimenting me for taking on the issue. One friend, a writer I greatly admire wrote, “You called a duck, a duck. Some people don’t want to hear that.”

Sadly, that’s clearly still the case.

John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the story of an epic college basketball rivalry,” spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list and is available now for Christmas. His most recent kids mystery, “The DH,”—is also still available in stores and online.

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