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Volume 21 No. 33
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Richard Lapchick, DeVos Sport Business Management Program and The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport

The founder of the racial and gender report cards in sports discusses the struggle for equality and diversity and how the next generation is using sports as a platform for positive social change.

I define a leader differently than most people do. I define a leader as somebody who stands up for justice and doesn’t block its path. Nelson Mandela would be at the very top of any list that I would put together.

I think that the consistency of the message of people like [Muhammad] Ali, people like Mandela, people like Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, who I admire so much in the world of sport, has been that decade after decade, their message has been the same. And at various points of that message being delivered, they were putting themselves at a very substantial risk in terms of their own professional careers.

Mandela spends obviously 27 years in prison and people expect him to come out as a hateful person after that terrible experience. Instead, he comes out embracing everybody, and literally changed a lot of things in the world, not just in South Africa, because they saw this principle of not only love but forgiveness.

It’s easier to love than it is to forgive. If you can do both, you’re going to be in a strong position to influence people in a positive way and to do things that are going to make society better.

I got the opportunity to found the Center for the Study of Sport and Society up at Northeastern in ’84. It was consistently using sport as a platform to educate people. I saw what it did in the anti-apartheid movement; people who knew very little about the apartheid in this country were reading about it on the sports pages because of the boycott of South Africa.

On a personal level, I was physically assaulted during that process, and it made me realize that if people were going to that length to stop what I was doing, then it must have been effective and having an impact.

The United States was late to join the boycott of South Africa. … So the Davis Cup team, their Davis Cup team, is competing in the North American zone in Nashville. … We held a press conference … about the African boycott of Los Angeles [Olympics] if this thing was allowed to come, so we tipped it in all three networks that were covering. Dick Schapp came up to me afterward and said, “We just had a remote back to the studio that told us the financial backers of the Davis Cup had pulled out and it looked like the matches were going to be canceled.”

I flew home to Virginia where I was teaching at the time that night and I thought maybe for the first time in my life I had done something worthwhile.

And the next night I was working late in my college office, which was in the school’s library at Virginia Wesleyan College. The library closed at 10:30. … If I was working after it closed, campus security would come and check, so I didn’t think it was unusual when there was a knock on my door 15 minutes after the building closed. And instead of campus security, it was two men wearing stocking masks who proceeded to cause liver damage, kidney damage, a hernia, a concussion, carved “n-----” in my stomach with a pair of scissors.

The attack signified and kind of encapsulated a large amount of hate that I knew existed in the country.

This is now 35 years later and we have an African-American president, there’s obviously been a tremendous amount of positive things that have happened.

But when Barack Obama ran for president there were 600 hate groups in the United States, when he was inaugurated there were 800, and now there are 1,000 hate groups in the United States, the largest number by far at any time in American history.

So the work on issues of discrimination, whether they be racial or gender or from the LGBT community … we’re openly discussing them but we still have not finished the journey.

The LGBT issue, right now, is probably the toughest one to deal with, but I’ve seen more movement on that in the past 12 months than any time in my lifetime, and it’s been really encouraging how fast that seems to be changing. … Suddenly we’re seeing professional sports teams doing PSAs about it.

I’ve been at probably half a dozen forums that are addressing that particular issue and the openness of it. One was at the NFL. … They were talking about that they were going to have a gay athlete come out sooner or later and they thought it was going to be sooner and they were talking about how they were going to support the athlete and it was really heartening.

The women’s movement in sports was certainly bolstered by the fact that there were men who suddenly had daughters who wanted to play sports and they took a self-interest in it.

When we first started doing the racial and gender report card in the late 1980s, the commissioners looked at this and said, “Why’s this guy being such a pain in the neck and publicizing this?”

Now, I think they all use the report card as a tool to work with the clubs to get them to improve, because the clubs are behind where the league offices are in terms of opportunities for people of color and women.

I think the fact that Bud Selig and Roger Goodell, who both were instrumental in putting in rules that mandated open hiring practices for key positions on their teams and their front offices, really changed everything.

Disappointingly, as somebody who’s worked on a college campus, I think the colleges have been worse than the pros. They haven’t changed things as fast, particularly on the issue of race, but they’re getting better.

The college level men’s basketball has gone from 25 percent coaches of color to 21 percent over a six-year period of time. That’s the type of trend that’s disturbing to me.

We’re covering the leagues and sports organizations, but when you go into those audiences where it’s marketing companies and it’s the whole rest of the field of the sports business, it’s really discouraging how few people of color there are and how few women there are.

We really need something called an “Eddie Robinson Rule” at the college level to move us along much faster than we are going.

When you fight for other people’s rights and opportunities, sometimes some people will think that it’s totally focused on just getting more people of color or more women in a position. It’s to get them the opportunity to be in that position.

There are other great sports management programs out there with great leaders running them. The difference is if you come here you’re committing to 42 hours of service every semester in a central Florida agency that is serving an underserved population.

They hear from speakers all the time who talk about how refreshing it is to know that this group of students is here because they want to bring about positive social change using the platform of sports to do it.

I always use the example of the huddle. Bill Curry talked about it years ago, that once you get into that huddle in sport, it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, what religion you or your parents are; it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; it doesn’t matter what kind of background, rich or poor, you come from. The team’s not going to win unless they pull together.

The message, wherever I am speaking is: “We’re all working in the world of sport. We have a different kind of platform than most people have.”