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March 12, 2010 10:45 pm
“My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship,” the University of Arkansas’s black basketball coach Nolan Richardson told a roomful of bemused white journalists. “I did not come over on that ship. So I expect to be treated a little differently.”
It was 2002, and the journalists hadn’t expected to be lectured about slavery. Richardson, though, was aching to talk race. Why didn’t Arkansas have other black coaches, he asked? Why were all the journalists white? The moment he stopped, they changed the subject: had he watched a tape of the recent defeat to Kentucky?
Four days later, Richardson was fired. “The most important African-American coach America has known” – according to Rus Bradburd’s excellent, angry new biography, Forty Minutes of Hell – has barely surfaced since. Yet as the college basketball championship opens this week, his words still echo. The country’s debate on race increasingly focuses on coaches.
Richardson, 68, knows most stages of black American history from personal experience. He grew up in segregated El Paso, Texas. His grandmother, who raised him, told him stories about her parents, former slaves in Louisiana.
Often the story of race in American sports is told as if it ended when all teams went mixed in the 1960s. Bradburd dispels that notion. The admission of black athletes is an overrated moment. It overturned some racist stereotypes but confirmed others: blacks could play sport and music but they still weren’t allowed to coach.
When Richardson became a college coach in Texas in 1977, writes Bradburd, “there were less than a half-dozen black major college coaches in America”. After slavery and segregation had come job discrimination. Nor was segregation quite gone. Richardson had to tell one of his black players not to be seen out with his white girlfriend because some of the college’s donors had complained. In 1985 Richardson joined Arkansas, becoming the first black head coach at a mainly white university in the old Confederacy. Some Arkansas towns still “had unofficial laws forbidding blacks from living in them at all”, writes Bradburd. In context you understand Richardson’s periodic attacks on his team’s own fans, whom he called “turds” and worse. He was an intemperate man, with a lot to be intemperate about.
In 1994 Arkansas became national champions. Richardson remained angry. Though most college football and basketball players were black, barely any football coaches or athletics directors were. The only known qualification for becoming a college coach is having played the sport. Blacks played, but whites got more coaching jobs. That makes coaching the perfect touchstone for job discrimination. The same arguments apply in European soccer. There are no black managers in England’s premier league.
This debate matters. College teams are the pride of many small American towns. The college coach is a local chieftain. Bobby Rush, the Black Panther turned Congressman, has hosted hearings on the obstacles facing black coaches. It isn’t the civil rights struggle that Martin Luther King imagined, but it’s not absurd.
Richardson wasn’t fired for his monologue on race, but for another in which he’d complained about his job and attacked Arkansas’ fans again. Yet to him, his anger was of a piece. In Arkansas, his colour mattered. In a subsequent lawsuit over his firing, two of the university’s trustees admitted to occasionally telling “nigger jokes”.
Americans debate race through periodic “race dramas”. One such drama was Richardson’s press conference. Most media damned him. Sports Illustrated spoke of “a bewildering self-immolation”. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said he had made “a public ass of himself”, and put “a whole state in a shouting match over race”. But as Arkansas’s then governor Mike Huckabee noted, Richardson’s critics hadn’t “walked in his shoes”. A whole life had culminated in that press conference.
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