Racism and athletes' misdeeds

On average, we read about two athletes a week getting in trouble with the law -- drugs, alcohol, violence in games, and especially violence against women. In many of those stories, we read about how the institution of pro sports is breeding lawless men who care nothing about social norms or their society and community, but only about themselves.

What I consider to be the biggest problem in sports today is how stereotypes about our athletes and coaches can affect the way the game is played, the way it is reported on, and the way the public views the game and its players.

It is largely an issue of racism, the single greatest plague on American society. Latrell Sprewell is not representative of a volleyball player at Princeton or a football player at the University of California. Most athletes -- college or pro -- are religious, family-centered people who give back to their communities.

Is Latrell Sprewell a "poster child" for this generation of athletes, as some writers are suggesting? He is one of 300 players this year in the NBA, which has been around for 50 years. He is the first to hit a coach. I do not think this indicates a trend.

As America has become "politically correct," some whites no longer express offensive stereotypical characteristics they still attribute to "other groups." I strongly believe we are now using descriptions of athletes to accomplish the same ends and say the same things.

Writers say athletes are trained to be violent. There has never been a thorough, scientific study conclusively showing that athletes are more inclined.

Obviously, I believe that athletes are not more likely to be perpetrators. On the contrary, I believe that athletes should take a leadership role on this, just as they have on drug abuse and educational opportunities.

The following proposals take into account the fact that while sports have not fulfilled Jackie Robinson's dual dream for race relations, it may have come closer to it than any other segment of our society. The proposals call upon athletes to follow a higher standard of behavior on critical issues to positively influence our youth as worthy role models.

  • Teams should hire leaders who should be diverse and demonstrate values that uphold the ideals of sport.
  • Each team and league office should adopt a training program on diversity for players and front office staff.
  • Each team and league office should adopt a training program on preventing violence against women.
  • The leagues should firmly discipline players, coaches and front office personnel when they behave outside of socially acceptable norms -- adopting zero tolerance policies for behavior outside the sports arena that harms others. The leagues should strengthen existing drug policies.
  • The players associations should not make automatic responses in defense of players who exhibit antisocial behavior. Circumstances should be factored in to decide how and if they will support players.
  • Leagues, teams and players associations should expand their efforts in the community to help youth.
  • Sports organizations should work closely with the media to get it to cover positive things athletes are doing to help create a better society.
  • New stadiums should be built in cities -- and not in suburbs -- in ways that would revitalize cities.

I believe that sports -- from youth sports through the pros -- has a role to play in creating a more civil society. It's a role which can have a tremendous positive impact on public behavior. Richard E. Lapchick addressed the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community in December at its third meeting, held in Washington, D.C. Lapchick, a commission member, directs the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, at Northeastern University.

Originally published on January 14, 1998