In Recognition of Black History Month

February 26, 2008

“… we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; …we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt; and … we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.” 

   African American astronomer Benjamin Banneker in a letter to Thomas Jefferson asking Jefferson to extend human liberties and rights to African Americans (1791).

“That was my time.  I was ready for it.  Every night, I stayed in and studied.  I wasn’t going to let them say black quarterbacks were dumb.” 

James Harris, one of the first black quarterbacks in the NFL, during an interview for the book, “Third and a Mile” (2007).

Two hundred and sixteen years separate those comments.  As we reflect on Black History Month, we can say that in some instances, we’ve come a short way, slowly.  How sad for us all — black, white, red, brown — that Banneker’s plea to Jefferson to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to [African Americans],” might still be made today.

But I don’t want to use this opportunity to dwell on what was and should never have been.  Rather, let’s celebrate what is and hopefully will be. 

What is?  Well, in 2007, Tony Dungy became the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.  This year, Mike Carey served as the first black referee in a Super Bowl.  In 1988, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.  All wonderful accomplishments and milestones, deserving of recognition.  Know what will be even better?  When those accomplishments are so commonplace, we won’t even notice. 

Organizations focused on the mission of furthering opportunities for minorities in the NFL provide promise for what will be.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance formed in 2003 as an affinity group of NFL minority coaches, scouts and front office personnel, works with the NFL to develop hiring guidelines and talent development programs.  Hall of Famer and former Giants linebacker, Harry Carson, is the current executive director.

Also, the league’s first five black quarterbacks — Harris, Williams, Marlin Briscoe, Vince Evans, and Hall of Famer Warren Moon– recently formed a nonprofit organization:  The Field Generals.  The group is dedicated to teaching and preserving the history of the African American quarterback.

Today, it is commonplace to see black quarterbacks on the field directing their teams, although there are still few black head coaches and general managers.  It has been a long time coming, and there is still much to work toward.  But progress has been made.

And Benjamin Banneker?  Not a football player of course, but if this is the first you’ve heard of him, take this opportunity to learn more.  Read his eloquent letter to Jefferson.  Unfortunately, you won’t be able to view much of his works and inventions.  On the day of his funeral in 1806, his home and all of its contents mysteriously burned to the ground.  





February 18, 2008

Flashback to 2005. Remember when the NBA instituted its new dress code and ushered in the dilemma every woman in America faces daily — what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear? It was developed to improve the NBA’s image. I think it worked.

Of course, for those of us in public relations, image is oh-so-important. My previousdud49421.jpg career was in politics, so I can attest to how important image is — and how difficult it can be to correct one. But the NBA has done a pretty good job.

The league, which many accused of acquiring a thug image in recent years, was in danger of losing corporate sponsorships and fans. So it rid itself of the chains, flip-flops, T-shirts, and sunglasses (indoors). Players seem to have embraced the code, competing with one another on who can look more dapper. LeBron, who just collected an NBA All-Star trophy again last night, has had no problem with it. Jermaine O’Neal promised to be one of the league’s best-dressed and, by all accounts, has succeeded. Even two of the NBA’s “bad boys” — Allen Iverson and Ron Artest — have coped with the less-than-cumbersome rules. Iverson didn’t like the rules (or practice, if you remember), but Artest vowed to have some fun with them, like purple shoes with yellow dress pants and such. Who says proper business attire can’t be fun?

MJMichael Jordan probably set the standard for presenting an impeccable, professional image. Gracing the cover of “ESPN The Magazine,” (Feb. 25, 2008 edition), Jordan says the NBA doesn’t currently have an image problem. He does, however, say that kids shouldn’t come into the league until they are 21 and possess (hopefully) better judgment, which I agree with. But that is another issue.

Jordan argues for genuineness in the league, and urges it to find the right mix between corporate and street to accommodate today’s players. He wants the NBA to allow them to be who they are, and not to try to remake them in the Jordan or Magic images. David Stern may not embrace that, but LeBron and Dwight Howard, and of course Iverson, will appreciate it.

While I don’t disagree with Jordan that a “correct” mix of corporate and street can work, I also know that Stern has to look at the bottom line. Professional basketball is big business and projecting a professional image — and one that is accepted by the majority of its fans and supporters — is important to its continued success. The players are professionals and, whether they like it or not, role models who present the NBA’s image to the rest of the world. They seem to be doing a pretty good job of it right now.


February 5, 2008

pro-football-hall-of-fame.jpgOn the Saturday before each Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announces its selections for induction into the NFL’s most exclusive fraternity. This year, six accomplished and deserving athletes were honored. Noticeably missing from the list, however, was newly eligible wide receiver, Cris Carter. A former Ohio State Buckeye who moved through the professional ranks with the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins, Carter ranks second on the all-time receptions list. He was considered by many to be an automatic first-ballot selection.

But he wasn’t.

Now the buzz among many fans and sportswriters is that Carter’s off-the-field problems kept him from being a first-time inductee. Carter was suspended by OSU for a rules violation that led to his loss of eligibility for his senior year and his pleading guilty to defrauding OSU in an agent scandal. In his early pro career, Carter battled alcohol and drug addictions. But he has used his football fame to become an inspirational speaker counseling kids to stay away from alcohol and drugs. He also has remained active in football as a member of the HBO “Inside the NFL” broadcast team. Carter has not been the victim of bad press.

This same buzz was heard when receiver Michael Irvin, the “Playmaker” for the Dallas Cowboys, was left out of the line-up in his first year of HOF eligibility. Irvin’s much-publicized issues with drugs and women did little to make him a role model, but he made the cut in 2007 and is now permanently enshrined in Canton. As an ESPN analyst at the time, having the huge sports network advocate for him on the air couldn’t have hurt.

And then there is Lawrence Taylor who, even with his multiple and memorable off-the-field escapades, was inducted in his first year of eligibility in 1999. Considered to have redefined the outside linebacker position, Taylor put it all out there in his book, “LT: Over the Edge: Tackling Quarterbacks, Drugs, and a World Beyond Football.” While the book wasn’t published until 2004, five years after his induction, Taylor’s free-wheeling reputation was hardly a secret. Still, HOF voters recognized his on-the-field talent and rewarded him with a place in the Hall.

Five of the six players in this year’s class have waited years to be inducted. Class of 2008 member, Art Monk, has led an exemplary life on and off the field but waited nine years for the honor. Maybe some really good PR would have made the wait shorter for him, but in the end, his talent got him in.

Carter will be inducted into the HOF. History and bad press are not the culprits for his being left out this year. Like Monk, Carter’s talent will get him in.

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