SBJ/March 18 - 24, 2002/Opinion

Some barriers torn down, others still stand

There were a number of minority firsts at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City last month. These successes certainly are illustrative of progress in sports while other sports related events, away from those Games, highlight the status quo.

The overall success of minorities in the Winter Games, led by gold medalist bobsledder Vonetta Flowers, is significant. She became the first black, male or female, to win a Winter Games gold medal. Derek Parra became the first Mexican-American to win the gold, and Cuban-American Jennifer Rodriguez won bronze. Just before the closing ceremony, two African-American bobsledders, Randy Jones and Garrett Hines, added to the minority haul with a silver in the four-man event. Also medalists in the Games were Americans of Asian heritage, Michelle Kwan and Apolo Anton Ohno.

The message is an old one: Once opportunities are provided to a broader range of Americans, they too may have success in the newly opened arena.

Lloyd Ward, the African-American head of the U.S. Olympic Committee and former Maytag executive, promises to focus on expanding these opportunities. He talks of bobsledding, luge and skeleton on rollers in America's inner cities. The edginess is anticipated to pull some away from traditional city games, particularly basketball, football, and even track and field to this new frontier. The presence of Ward is an Olympic success as well.

Beyond the Olympic Games, Frank Robinson has been recycled to manage yet again in Major League Baseball. This recycling of the old manager while bypassing younger prospects has happened with white guys in the same way for years. It's a new experience for an African-American.

More significant than Robinson is the new general manager of the Montreal Expos, Omar Minaya. He becomes the first Latino general manager in Major League Baseball history. In a game where the number of Latinos now exceeds the number of African-Americans, this was long overdue.

Also in baseball, Donald Watkins is in the mix to buy the Minnesota Twins or some other major league team. This brings us very close to the first minute of a new day. The African-American businessman would be the first to be the minority controlling owner of a team in the history of Major League Baseball. Word has it that he truly does have the capability to pull this off. His wealth has been estimated at more than $1 billion, which makes him one of only two known African-American billionaires — the other being Black Entertainment Television's Bob Johnson.

Apparently no one, including Fortune, Forbes or Black Enterprise, knew of Watkins' wealth. Could others be living life under the radar as well? We must watch to see how this plays out.

There is still a notable discomfort in the sports world where African-American Marvin Lewis once again did not get the head football coaching opportunity he wants and deserves. But he still ended up with the most lucrative contract for an assistant coach in the National Football League by joining the Washington Redskins staff. It turns out too, in another event worth noting, that highly respected African-American attorney-agent Ray Anderson represents him.

Still, uneasy statements raise their ugly head, such as those of Paul Hornung, reported in Sports Illustrated, urging his alma mater Notre Dame — the institution that just hired African-American Tyrone Willingham (also represented by Anderson) as its head coach — to lower its standards to recruit more black athletes. Comments the likes of Hornung's that "all the black kids are the best athletes. They happen not to have as good grades, some of them, so they can't get in" continue to jab at us once we get a little too comfortable with ourselves. We can critique the words and meaning, but the broad brush toward any group remains problematic.

The symbolic diversity moment of the year thus far was Alicia Keys and Angie Stone blending together the Negro National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," with "America the Beautiful" at the NBA All-Star Game. The symbolism is important. The representation was reflective of the goal of bringing us all together in a seamless fashion.

Unification is easier to portray in song than in real life. There is still much more economic progress to be made for a broader group of Americans. The success of the Winter Olympic athletes is fantastic both individually and for the inspiration their success will provide for a whole generation of youngsters, minority and otherwise.

But Watkins' involvement in the national pastime and Ward's leadership with the USOC may be the two most significant elements of minority progress in sports at this moment, while Marvin Lewis' non-hiring and Hornung's words are the clearest reminders of how far we have to go.

Kenneth L. Shropshire (shropshire@wharton.upenn.edu) is professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Legal Studies Department.

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