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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Remember When a Sport Was a Sport?

"Professional Sport and Public Behavior"

Richard Lapchick
Director, Center for the Study of Sport in Society

Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, internationally recognized expert on sports issues, scholar and author who is often described as “the racial conscience of sport.”  He brought his commitment to equality and his belief that sport can be an effective instrument of positive social change to the University of Central Florida where he accepted an endowed chair in August 2001.  Lapchick became the only person named as “One of the 100 Most Powerful People in Sport” to head up a sport management program.  He remains President and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport and helped bring the NCAS national office to UCF. Lapchick is also director for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Lapchick’s extensive list of honors and awards cover several decades. In 2006, Lapchick was named both the Central Florida Public Citizen of the Year and the Florida Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. Lapchick has been the recipient of numerous humanitarian awards and was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame of the Commonwealth Nations in 1999 in the category of Humanitarian along with Arthur Ashe  and Nelson Mandela and received the Ralph Bunche International Peace Award.

Lapchick is a prolific writer. His 13th book will be published at the end of 2007.  Lapchick is a regular columnist for and The Sports Business Journal.  Lapchick is a regular contributor to the op ed page of the Orlando Sentinel.

 Sports Cynics

In a presentation to the Penn National Commission ("Professional Sport and Public Behavior," December 1997), Richard Lapchick admits it is easy to understand how a sports press, the fans who read that press, and the public at large become cynical about sports.

According to Lapchick, it is equally easy to understand the cry that so many people make that athletes should not be role models for our young people because athletes may lead them down a negative path. He thinks some of America's best sportswriters are continually bringing that same terrible news of the demise of professional sports to our doorsteps.

Bad News For Athletes

Richard Lapchick cites several reasons the public gives for believing the continual bad news:

1. People are cynical that many athletes don't care whether they get an education or not because colleges are simply way-stations to the pros.

2. People believe male pro athletes make preposterous salaries when fans can't even count on those same athletes to be on the same team the next year because of free agency.

3. People view owners as unscrupulous role model for the players.

4. People see, on average, about two athletes a week who have trouble with the law, be it drugs, alcohol, violence, or gender violence. 

Lapchick says, "When I suggest good-news stories to writers who've called me to talk about bad news, the conversation quickly becomes silent. When I say, `Why won't you write it,' they say that `Good news won't sell.' How do they know? It's so rare that they put it in our papers." 

He believes the one factor that's hardest to measure is attitude about racial stereotypes. Lapchick says when America thinks about athletes, they generally think about black athletes, although they no longer openly express stereotypes of blacks as lacking intelligence, lacking work ethic, taking drugs, and committing gender violence, they do make stereotypes of athletes, in general, as being black. (At the time of the article, 17 percent in major-league baseball, 79 percent in the NBA, 66 percent in the National Football League; at the college level in Division I, 61 percent of basketball players, 52 percent of football players and 6 percent of baseball players were black.)  

While the overwhelming majority of sportswriters are white, the public sees athletes through this filter, sometimes representing blacks as "natural athletes," somehow having to work less hard than white athletes to achieve success. And, in the nation as a whole, study after study shows ... "that many white people think blacks are more violent, less hardworking, live more off welfare, are less intelligent and more inclined to use drugs." Lapchick reports, "Assumptions are made that such athletes come from poor families, in spite of the fact that 67 percent of America's poor are white."

Among the athletes recruited for college sports, many are going to have some (all) of these characteristics:

1. They have lived in a society full of violent death, most frequently by a gun.
2. They have lived in a society full of teen pregnancy.
3. They have lived in a society full of people devastated by drugs.
4. They have lived in a society full of gender violence.
5. They have lived in a society full of sexual harassment and rape, even in large corporations.
6. They have lived in a society full of violent and aggressive sports.
7. They have lived in a society full of low high school graduation rates.
8. They have lived in racial isolation and come to predominantly white campuses with overwhelmingly white student bodies, staffs, and administrations.

What Can Sports Actually Do For Society?

Many people have a lofty view of what sports is or what sports and athletes can do. Lapchick contends, "We want to use them--sports and our athletes--to reach children. They're children in deep, deep crisis. And we can help them believe in what they can't see. Children see what's in front of them on the edges of despair, and see no source of hope... our children--not just parents, our children--have learned to hate each other on the basis of how they look and what they believe in." 

But, Lapchick also finds children want athletes -- professional, college, and high school -- to reach out to them, not just because the athletes are famous or have great athletic accomplishments, but because these children think the athletes are "caring individuals for whatever series of reasons."

Lapchick believes, "Young people are angry; they're confused; they feel powerless. How else do we explain that such a large proportion of the drugs used in America are consumed by American teenagers? Why do you use a drug? You want to change how you feel at that moment. The largest percentage of steroids used in the United States are not used by athletes. They're used by teen-age boys under the age of 16 who are not athletes, who feel so frail in their self-image that they use these drugs to make themselves stronger or faster for the perception of other people." 

He continues, "When survey--researchers ask some of the million teen-age girls who become pregnant every year why they would risk their future and become pregnant, the most common response is, `Because I wanted somebody to love me.' `Because I wanted somebody to love me.'" 

Lapchick confesses, "I have participated in the NBA's and NFL's rookie transition programs, and these young people tell us that they owe--they feel that they owe their lives to gang leaders in the communities that they came from because they were protected when other children were dying, and the payoff is that the gang leaders made deals with them that if they make it they will reimburse them some monetary response, because the gang leaders not only saved their lives, but they provided them with clothing and goods during that period of time."   

Lapchick credits Lou Harris and his team to evaluate programs such as Project Teamwork and Ambassadors Against Prejudice that trained, systematically, athletes with conflict-resolution skills and diversity-training skills. They have become America's most successful violence prevention programs. Other programs like this are sorely needed by all athletes.

Lapchick believes, for whatever reason, if the message is in the context of sport with athletes as the deliverers of the message, audiences become at ease with difficult subjects. These athletes must be trained using the skills needed to deliver these tough messages -- messages that can change athletes and even save lives.

Proposals for Professional Sports

Richard Lapchick makes these proposals for professional sports based on the fact that he believes that the responsibilities of professional sports organizations and the unique place that they hold in our community are very profound and that professional sports organizations, to this point, have hardly lived up to them. He believes the beneficiaries will be the owners, administrators, players, fans, and especially the children.

1. Place sports organizations at the grass roots of the cities rather than being moved into the suburbs of the cities.

2. Hold athletes to a higher standard than we hold other people.

3. Hire franchises leaders and decision-makers who are the right people, who have a good sense of ethical and moral responsibility, who are a diverse group of people, and who understand the times of their players.

4. Do not hire the the coaches that college teams have fired because they were doing problematic jobs.

5. Create rookie orientation programs and other ongoing programs for the personal development of the players and the front-office staff.  

6. Adopt sports league life-readiness plans to offer athletes further job education after their brief pro careers.

7. Propose very emphatically a cultural transition program for Latino ball players coming into major-league baseball.

8. Improve zero tolerance if an athlete is convicted of an act of gender violence at one of the 140 universities in the consortium, so they will be immediately banned for a year. After a year of counseling and going through other things, they can apply for reinstatement. If they're convicted twice, they would be banned for the rest of their college careers.  

9. Strengthen drug policies to include both help for their current athletes, but also to include other drugs on the list, including marijuana.

10. Produce public-service announcements and ticket give-aways. Work more closely with the media to get those positive images of athletes out there when there are so many athletes doing good things. Most professional athletes have private foundations that work in communities; more than 80 percent of pro athletes have their own foundations. Most are deeply religious, family-centered people.

11. Continue to invite National Student Athlete Day award winners to the White House to meet the President.    

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