New book dives into problematic treatment of Black players, staff in professional sports

Many Americans will be catching up on their share of football on Thanksgiving, and into the extended weekend. The NFL's approach to a number of issues around race and politics have been the subject of much debate and concern. Judy Woodruff has a conversation about a new book that examines the larger struggles in that league, and others, when it comes to race.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Many of you may be catching up on some football over Thanksgiving and the holiday weekend. And, as sports fans know, the NFL's handling of issues around race and politics in the past has sparked controversy and debate.

    Judy Woodruff has a conversation about a new book that examines the larger struggles in that league and others when it comes to race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Activism, politics and racial discrimination have long intersected with sports. But many athletes have become more vocal in recent years about those issues.

    Pro football's Colin Kaepernick put himself front and center when he took a knee back in 2016 to protest racial injustice and treatment by police.

    A new book looks at these and the many other battles Black athletes have long faced. It is called "Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports."

    Its author, sportswriter John Feinstein, joins me now.

    And, John Feinstein, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    John Feinstein, Author, "Raise a Fist, Take a Knee": Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports": Judy, always good to be back. Thanks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have written, what is it, more than 40 books, almost all of them about sports.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you told me that this may be the most important one.

  • John Feinstein:

    It is to me because of the subject matter.

    I have written about a lot of different people in sports, as you well know, in different sports. But, for years, doing what I do, I have — I think I have had some understanding that race plays a role in our entire society, as we see all the time nowadays, but very much in sports.

    It's not hard, if you're a player, to get a chance to play, because playing is a meritocracy. But getting a job as a head coach in the NFL, getting a job as a head coach in football or basketball, general managers jobs, CEO jobs, those are much harder.

    And there are numbers that back up those facts. In fact, the last 20 NFL jobs that opened — 75 percent of the players are Black — two Black coaches have been hired. And believe me when I tell you there are plenty of qualified candidates for these jobs, and they're not getting them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that.

    And I want to ask you to start with football. We know that a lot has changed with regard to Black athletes and what they were able to do in football.

    It was, what, not too many decades ago Blacks were considered unfit to be a quarterback.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, today, if you list, what, the half-dozen or so top quarterbacks in the country Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, they're there. They're at the top.

    But it's been a torturous path.

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, it has been.

    And you go back to Marlin Briscoe, who was the first quarterback who played in either the AFL or the NFL 1968 in Denver. He was second in the rookie of the year voting, and never got a chance to play quarterback in the NFL again.

    James Harris, who was the first black quarterback to start for a team that went to the playoffs, was told he would be drafted much higher than the eighth round if he would change positions. That's what they did in those days. They would ask black quarterbacks to change positions because they were fast, and because they weren't "smart enough" — quote, unquote — to play the position.

    But even now, Judy, with all the progress we have made — that's a reason for the subtitle — Lamar Jackson when he came out of Louisville in 2018 was told to change positions, 50 years after Marlin Briscoe, become a wide receiver, become a running back. And he refused.

    Four white quarterbacks were drafted in the top 10 that year. Lamar Jackson only went in the first round because he was the last pick chosen by Ozzie Newsome, the first black general manager in the history of the NFL, and we all know what's happened. Lamar Jackson has been an MVP, and he is by far the best of that quarterback group.

    But they wanted — and he loves to come in after he's had a good game and go, "Not bad for a running back."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mentioned in the lead-in to this Colin Kaepernick, famously took a knee six years ago. He was singled out. He was attacked by former President Trump.

    Has he been blackballed by the NFL because of race?

  • John Feinstein:

    Is Thanksgiving coming up? I mean, absolutely, 100 percent, he's been blackballed, not because of race, but because he knelt, because he took on the establishment, because he said: I see wrong and I'm going to not stand up for it, but kneel for it.

    And he — people forget he was the starting quarterback in San Francisco the last 11 games of the 2016 season, and then couldn't get a job? He couldn't — nobody would sign him even as a backup? There are 64 quarterback jobs — quarterbacking jobs in the NFL. And he wasn't — all of a sudden, he wasn't one of the best 64 quarterbacks?

    And NFL people, largely through the white media, have claimed, oh, he wasn't as good a player, he couldn't get a job because he wasn't that good. No, he couldn't get a job because he was blackballed. And Roger Goodell basically admitted it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do dedicate the book — one of the people you dedicate it to is another coach, a college basketball coach, John Thompson, famed coach at Georgetown.

    Tell us about him. You had a somewhat tempestuous relationship, and about what he said to you, that he wanted you, a white man, to write this book.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

    After he retired, we became friends. And he became a mentor to me, because John was as smart as anybody I have ever met in any walk of life. And when I knew I wanted to try to write a book like this, it was during the 2017 anthem protests, when I would sit in a football stadium on Sunday, and hear the fans, 90 percent of them white, booing the players, 90 percent of them black, who were kneeling.

    And I went to see John. And I said: "I want to write a book about race in sports."

    And he laughed. And he said in that deep voice of his: "You might as well try to explain the Holy Trinity."

    And then he pointed at me and said, "But that's why you have to do it."

    And several of my African-American colleagues, Kevin Blackistone, Michael Wilbon, said the same thing to me. I can't claim to understand the black experience, but I can't claim to understand what it's like to be a big-time college basketball coach, and I have written about them for years and years, because I have been able to talk to them.

    Same with this book. I talked to about 100 guys. All of them had different stories, but I think they were stories that need to be told.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Not all black athletes have chosen to be activists.

  • John Feinstein:

    True.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We think of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. And there are others.

    But you write in the book about how every — and you talked to scores of black athletes.

  • John Feinstein:

    I did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Every single one of them, you said, it's as if they have two jobs. One is to be — to do their job, but the other one is to be a black man.

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you talked about driving while black.

  • John Feinstein:

    Driving while black. I did not interview one black person who had not had at least one experience with driving while black, pulled over for no apparent reason.

    And the first question is always, where'd you get this car? Because a black person, in the minds of many police, shouldn't be driving a nice car, especially at night.

    There's a story that Doc Rivers, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, told me about one of his teammates, Kenny Norman, making the mistake of stopping to get gas in South Central L.A., and the next thing he knew he was across the hood of his car with handcuffs on, because the cops pulled up and just assumed that the car was stolen.

    My favorite story, though, is about Cullen Jones, the Olympic swimmer, who went out one night to walk his dog. And a police car went by, made a U-turn, came back, and the police officer said, "Where did you get that dog?"

    "It's my dog."

    "What kind of dog is it?"

    "It's a bulldog terrier."

    "How long have you had it?"

    "Since he was a puppy."

    And the guy goes, "OK," and then he drives away.

    And I said to Cullen well, you're the first person I have interviewed who was a victim of WDWB, walking dog while black. That was different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing, fans. You talked about the fans reacting over the last few years to what's happened. What role do they play in all this?

  • John Feinstein:

    That's a great question.

    And I think they affect management with the way they react to activism, that, if management senses that fewer people are going to buy tickets, the ratings might go down — TV ratings went down in 2017. And Donald Trump was saying that's all because of all these guys kneeling.

    I don't think it was because of that. But I do think that management is very conscious of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such an important story. So many important stories in here, "Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports."

    John Feinstein, thank you very much.

  • John Feinstein:

    Judy, thanks for having me. Happy Thanksgiving.

Listen to this Segment