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Talking about race, politics or football can be a recipe for conflict. Talking about all three at the same time? That’s an engraved invitation to a duel, especially in South Carolina.

April 2, 2010

Talking about race, politics or football can be a recipe for conflict. Talking about all three at the same time? That’s an engraved invitation to a duel, especially in South Carolina.

It’s of no surprise, therefore, that black lawmakers in South Carolina caused a stir recently when they contemplated using black football recruits for political leverage. Concerned that the University of South Carolina’s 22-member Board of Trustees might lose its lone black member, the lawmakers discussed calling on Gamecock football prospects to reconsider their college choice. While it’s unclear how many, if any, recruits were ever contacted, the story alone has drawn attention to a diversity issue that concerns many.

This is not the first time black lawmakers in the South have leaned on football recruits to apply political pressure, and the resurgence of the strategy again raises questions about the appropriateness of luring high school seniors into a racially charged debate. Similar questions were raised in 2005, when Alabama lawmakers pressed Auburn University athletic prospects to go elsewhere in protest of the elimination of two positions held by black athletics officials. The administrators were dismissed as part of a reorganization that also included the promotions of two black officials and the removal of a white employee.

Billy Hawkins, a University of Georgia associate professor who has researched sports and race, said “the collegiate black athlete is viable leverage to consider when seeking socio-political change.” That said, politicians need to show a vested interest in these athletes’ futures beyond the field of play as well, Hawkins wrote in an e-mail.

“I do not think that these lawmakers should merely try to employ the black athletic presence and power without getting involved in their plight at this predominantly white institution; in this case, the University of South Carolina,” wrote Hawkins, an associate professor of kinesiology. “If black lawmakers are only developing this relationship with black athletes for their political agenda, they are no different from the institutions that use them for economic gain.”

The effectiveness of calls for boycotts is also in question. The protests at Auburn died off after a few weeks without the reinstatement of Stacy Danley and Eugene Harris, and both officials later landed jobs at historically black colleges. Danley is now athletic director at Tuskegee University and Harris is head men’s basketball coach at Florida A&M University.

Juan Gilbert, who is black and was a faculty member at Auburn when the boycott was called for in 2005, said he was ambivalent about the action at the time. Gilbert was a member of the university’s black caucus, but – unlike some of his colleagues – he didn’t publicly support the boycott. Today, he says he’s still unsure if it’s fair to ask young athletes to give up their shot at a scholarship in the hope of driving home a political point.

“There’s going to be individuals for whom this is going to be the only opportunity for a free education,” said Gilbert, president of the Brothers of the Academy, a group of black male academics. “Who am I to say turn it down for a greater social cause?”

Gilbert, now a professor of computer science at Clemson University, in South Carolina, said he sees diversity on university boards as an issue worthy of greater attention. That said, he does not ascribe nefarious motives to those who’ve continually appointed white men to serve in these positions.

“I don’t think the intention is racist or discriminatory,” he said. “I think people make choices based on the network of [people] close to them.”

At South Carolina, 19 of the 22 board members are white men. Among the members is Gov. Mark Sanford, an ex officio trustee whose highly-publicized infidelity has, by most accounts, undermined his credibility in the state.

President, Spurrier Don't Weigh in on Board

Harris Pastides, the University of South Carolina’s president, declined an interview request for this article but issued a statement generally addressing the importance of diversity at the institution. Notably absent from the statement, however, was any direct mention of the composition of the legislatively appointed board to which he reports.

“The importance of diversity is a core value of mine, instilled by my parents and strengthened by my experience growing up in a multi-ethnic community in New York City,” Pastides’s statement reads. “As president of the University of South Carolina, the flagship institution that bears our state’s name, I believe that our student body, our faculty and staff, and our administration should mirror the population of our state. This is fundamental to who we are and what we represent, and something that we strive for every day through all our endeavors at the university. I hope that the Legislature will do what is best for our university and our state.”

Steve Spurrier, the university’s high-profile football coach, has not shied away from racially charged issues before. Indeed, he made national news by proclaiming, alongside others, that the Confederate flag should be removed from the Statehouse. But when faced recently with reporters’ questions about the boycott, the former University of Florida quarterback and onetime placekicker opted to punt.

“That’s not in my control. Worry about what you control,” Spurrier said.

And should student athletes be worried about the composition of their university’s board of trustees? Rep. David Weeks thinks so. Black athletes should have a reasonable expectation that they too could one day be board members, he said. As it stands now, Weeks said he’s not so sure qualified black graduates would even bother to apply.

“Because of the composition of this board, I think it has proven to have a chilling effect, particularly on women and minorities,” said Weeks, a South Carolina graduate and chair of the legislative black caucus.

Weeks has underscored that the caucus considered discouraging recruits as a "viable strategy," but the members never formally decided to do so as a caucus. Weeks said he didn’t know, however, whether individual members made calls.

Leah B. Moody is a former Democratic candidate for state Senate, and her politics may be a reason for Republican opposition to her appointment, Weeks said. While he declined to overtly say that race was also a factor, he came awfully close.

“I won’t go that far and say they are against her because she’s African-American,” he said. “I will say there are some folks who are against her because she’s not a white male. If you want to read an inverse of that, that’s fine.”

Athletes Often Pressured

The calls for athletes in South Carolina and Auburn to take political stands are certainly not the first occasions where black athletes have been pressed to take controversial positions. When the former North Carolina Mayor Harvey Gantt ran to unseat Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate, the University of North Carolina alumnus Michael Jordan was pressed to give Gantt his endorsement. He declined.

"Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Jordan said.

Tiger Woods also invited criticism when he declined to take a forceful position on Augusta National Golf Club's male-only membership.

Todd Boyd, chair of the Study of Race & Popular Culture at the University of Southern California, said athletes should be entitled to make their own decisions about the degree to which they become politically engaged in public.

“Some people want them to be seen and not heard, [and] other people want them to be seen and heard,” he said. “I think it comes down to the individual.”

That’s not to say, however, that it’s inappropriate for lawmakers to invite college football prospects to take a stand, Boyd said.

“We’re not talking about 5-or 6-year-olds who are being brainwashed and manipulated,” he said.


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