TALKING ABOUT RACE
April 15, 1998
President Clinton and a panel of prominent sports figures discussed the issue of sports and race. The NewsHour has excerpts from that meeting.
JIM LEHRER: Last night in Houston, President Clinton attended a town meeting that focused on sports and race. A panel of prominent sports figures joined the president for the more than 90-minute event moderated by ESPN Anchor Bob Ley. Here are some excerpts.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
July 9, 1998
A dialogue on race with President Clinton.
Browse NewsHour essays , and coverage of race issues.
BOB LEY, ESPN: Thank you, Mr. President, for being here. We deeply appreciate it. I know your race initiative has been underway for seven or eight months. There are problems in this country, issues in this country. As we talk tonight race and sports, what can this dialogue bring to the nation at large, for there are bigger issues than simply those in sports?
The societal symbolism of sports.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I'd like to say a couple of things I think we can achieve. First of all, America, rightly or wrongly, is a sports crazy country, and we often see games as a metaphor or a symbol of what we are as a people. So I think by dealing with both the positive things which have happened in terms of opportunity for people of all races, and people getting together and working together, and the continuing challenges in athletics, I think just by doing that we learn more about the rest of the country and what needs to be done.
BOB LEY: Well, John Thompson, several times in the last few years --'89 you walked off over issues with the NCAA; '94 there was nearly a boycott by the Black Coaches Association. Is it still an issue, though, in sports where you have to almost verge on civil disobedience '90s style to bring attention to these issues?
JOHN THOMPSON, Georgetown University, Head Basketball Coach Since 1972: I don't know whether you have to do a civil disobedience, but I think you've got to create a consciousness of the fact that there's still a lot of people who are able to participate in the cotton field who is not able to be the foreman or not able to be the boss, or not able to have that opportunity. And that's what I think you try to do. You've got to be able to talk about it sensibly without people becoming so sensitive to it and acting as if it doesn't exist. Several kids who are able to play at universities in this country who wouldn't even be considered for a job, I mean, that's a fact. It's a sensitive subject; it doesn't mean that you're ready to become hostile, but you cannot close your eyes and act as if this doesn't exist. And I think that that's very important for us to discuss it, and that's why you need to be commended for having this type of a show, so we can discuss it intelligently.
BOB LEY: Well, why is it so sensitive?
JOHN THOMPSON: Why is it so sensitive -- it's very sensitive because of the very fact that, first of all, a lot of folks want to act as if it doesn't exist. It's obvious by the fact that, you know, if you look in our society today at the number of kids who participate particularly in basketball, which is the area that I'm in--if you look at the number of athletic directors that are in this country, if you look at the number of basketball coaches that are in this country, it's amazing to me how a person can be so competent as a player, so incompetent, and his knowledge leaves him once he graduates from a university. And that same university does not select him to participate at any level. You know, and I think that becomes sensitive when you discuss that with folks. It shouldn't be sensitive. You should be able to openly sit down, and you should be able to talk about it. But it's a fact.
BOB LEY: Well, Jackie, let me ask you, in East St. Louis, so involved with the kids, and also on the flip side now, the business world--where do you think it's easier to talk about it, among kids--among suits?
Ms. Joyner-Kersee: "We can talk and we can talk, but people need to listen, and people need to do something about it."
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, 3-Time Olympic Gold Medalist: Well, personally, I think having the dialogue, it starts there, but we can talk and we can talk, but people need to listen, and people need to do something about it. And for me, even working with kids, we talk about diversity, a melting pot, you're hearing from great players, coaches, owners, and you're talking about also that setting an example--and you wonder why kids don't want to be in administration or administrator, or why they don't strive to want to be a major league owner, or an NBA owner--because they don't see that. But then yet and still we come together and we talk about this race initiative. It's subtle racism, it's hidden racism. There's hidden agendas, and there's things that we as people have to deal with. But also we as people have to be listening and want to deal with it, and not just brush things under the table and say, oh, well, when the next person comes along--because it's going to be the next person, the next person after that. (Applause)
BOB LEY: Okay. Well, we are talking about it tonight.
JIM BROWN, Former Professional Football Player: No one up here has made an important point about economics. We have-- (applause)--we have athletes and coaches that are black that are making millions of dollars. You have not brought that subject up. You have not said to them, why don't you hire black lawyers, agents and managers? (applause) Those black lawyers, agents and managers would be handling those investment dollars. Right now the black investment dollars go into other neighborhoods. (applause) We stood up and we talk about one more black coach. One more black coach is a symbolic situation. Those investment dollars are the way to rebuild communities, show people that we can have racial unity, and that we understand the principles of economics. So I'd like to see someone address that and get away from these simplistic stereotypes, because I don't particularly care about what anybody thinks about me. (applause) I want to get--
BOB LEY: Go ahead, sir.
KEYSHAWN JOHNSON, Professional Football Player: I have an African-American attorney. (laughter among audience) But I didn't hire him because he was African-American, I gave him the opportunity for the application, to fill it out, to inquire, but I wanted to know if he could handle the job. I interviewed many whites, all across the board, some of the top agents in the business--as well as my investment financial people happen to be black. But they fit the mold of things that I want to do. I want to get back into my community, put the dollars in industry. (applause) So those are the things that I do.
JOHN THOMPSON: But let me caution you about that statement. It pulls at me and it also hurts me because I am also very sympathetic with what has occurred in our society, and I am very sensitive to the fact of what Jim is saying and what she is saying. But, you know, how far do you go? Do I pick a black dentist, do I pick a black lawyer, do I pick a black--you know, society has caused that. I didn't cause that. Society made us racial--I hate to use the word "racist" because we all get very nervous when people start talking about racism. But society has made us racial. But you have to constantly be in that struggle of being able to deal with that. That's the struggle that society has caused, and that's why these kinds of conversations are extremely important. The racial composition of my team--whites will come to you and say, because my team is predominantly black that you're a racist. Well, I'm an Uncle Tom to blacks; I'm a racist -- (laughter)--and, you know, and I'm going to tell you something. I'm going to tell you something. I don't give a damn what either side says. (laughter and applause.)
BOB LEY: You want to win, right? You want to win.
BOB LEY: Let me ask the President, if I could, sir: Do you think athletes have a special responsibility to have a social conscience to act, to be involved in the communities?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think if you have a special gift, if God gave you something that other people don't normally have, and no matter how hard they work they can't get there, then you owe more back. That's what I believe.
JIM BROWN: We have the resources to create any industry that we want to if we come together and use the same principles. That is the way it goes. (Applause.)
BOB LEY: Go ahead.
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE: But also, you could talk about creating those resources, but you've got to deal with the individual. Do I want to do that? You've got to take it to each one of those individuals you're talking about and building that base.
JIM BROWN: No doubt about it. You don't have--
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE: If you don't want to do that--you can't force them to do it. I understand how--
JIM BROWN: We all have a choice.
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE: Yes, we have a choice, and that choice is not for us to do that.
JIM BROWN: And so does that man, and so does that man.
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE: Right, that's true.
JIM BROWN: That's my only point.
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE: But when you're talking about blacks building that capital, and those people that capital, if they don't want to put that capital in there, we can't force them as human beings. We can't do that.
JIM BROWN: Does that go for whites, too?
JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE: That goes for whites, too. But they will go and they do that. They would do that. But you can't criticize one if they don't want to do it. If I made all this money and I want my money invested here, I have a right to do that. That is my choice. That's why we live in America, because we have choice. (applause)
Lessons learned from athletics.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I hope that everybody who's in an athletic program also learns good life skills to make good choices, good decisions. We didn't talk much about that tonight, but I think that's important--that the lessons learned from athletics carry over into good citizenship, including attitudes about people of different races. If that happens, we're going to be a lot better of. (applause)
JIM LEHRER: The program was part of a special advisory commission on race the president set up. He asked it to prepare a report on race relations in America by the end of the year.