Ed. Note: It’s August. We’re hard at work trying to get our website ready to launch after Labor Day. So we’re re-running and updating some of the ideas and people we introduced you to over the last eight months on The Citizen blog.[UPDATE: Since this story ran in April, the comments of a third player have fueled renewed speculation over the Eagles’ coach’s racial predisposition. Upon being traded, cornerback Brandon Boykin said that Kelly “isn’t comfortable with grown men of our culture,” prompting untold hours of sports talk debate and backlash.]
We all know the drill by now. There’s an accusation of racism. To some, the evidence is scant; to others, a prima facie case has been made. The response is defensive, sometimes condescendingly dismissive. And then we’re off to the races, talking past one another all the while.
That familiar script is taking shape now on a topic about which the citizens of Philadelphia are already arguably too passionate: professional football. What are the chances for a reasonable dialogue when you mix the hot-button issue of race with Philly’s fanaticism for football? Not high. But one prominent local academic says it’s not too late to turn the usual flurry of accusations and counter-accusations into a teachable moment.
First, the background. Stephen A. Smith, the bombastic ESPN on-air personality and former Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith raised the issue in Mid-March: Eagles coach Chip Kelly had just jettisoned African-American stars LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin, a year after unceremoniously cutting Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson. The parting with Jackson was followed in short order by the long-term contract awarded to wide receiver Riley Cooper, the white player who, in the summer of 2013, was caught on handheld video using the ‘N’ word during a confrontation with an African-American security guard during a Kenny Chesney concert. (A concert, it should be noted, that Kelly, and a handful of white Eagle players, also attended; it should also be noted that Cooper didn’t use the word as a prototypical slur. He seemed to use its hip-hop appropriation—“nigga”—when he said, “I will jump that fence and fight every nigga here,” addressing the security guard standing between him and where he wanted to go).
Last month, Smith took to the airwaves. “Chip Kelly makes decisions the last couple of years that dare I say leave a few brothas feeling uncomfortable,” Smith said. “…Now, I’m not saying I know, I’m just gonna say that it does strike me as a tad bit odd. I’m gonna repeat this. Gone: LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, ya know, DeSean Jackson. Staying: Riley Cooper.”
Smith said there were rumblings of upset in the Eagles locker room.
Recently, Tra Thomas, a former star player and a former assistant coach under Kelly, said Smith was on to something. “One of the things that you’re seeing right now, and these are the things that you have heard in the locker room from some different players is that…they feel like there is a hint of racism,” Thomas said on Fox-29 News. He cited a study that came out last fall showing the Eagles to have fewer black players (27) and more white players (25) than any team in the league, which sharply differs from the composition of the league itself, which is 68 percent African-American and 28 percent white. “You start to see the culture of the team change extremely quick when Coach Kelly takes over,” Thomas said.
For his part, Kelly responded last week during a media session at the NFL owners meeting. “I was just disappointed,” he said. “We gave Tra a great opportunity. He came in on a Bill Walsh minority internship program. Mr. Lurie was nice enough to keep him on for two years—one on offense, one on defense—to see if he could find a job in the NFL. So I hope Tra does find a job in the NFL. We don’t have a job open.”
When asked about having more white players than any team in the league, Kelly said: “I don’t look at the color of any player. I just look at how do they fit on our team. In 2015, I don’t think that’s something that’s ever come into my mindset.”
Former assistant coach Tra Thomas said there was a “hint of racism” behind Kelly’s decisions, pointing to a study showing the Eagles have fewer black and more white players than any team in the NFL. “I don’t look at the color of any player,” Kelly replied.
Indeed, there is a case to be made in response to Thomas’ allegations. Yes, Kelly jettisoned some great black players, but he also signed some great black players, like DeMarco Murray and cornerback Byron Maxwell. His own chief of staff and alter ego, James Harris, is African-American. And the coach has a history of introspection when it comes to race relations. When the Riley racial imbroglio flared up in 2013, Kelly reached out to the legendary Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley and a longtime leading voice on race in sports. According to a story last year in the Wall Street Journal, Kelly sought Edwards’ help in keeping his team together, and on other challenges facing a diverse locker room, including how to handle the playing of loud, racially- charged rap music.
Moreover, Kelly has seven African-American assistant coaches —though Thomas says this can be misleading, because only one runs his own segment, or specialty. The rest, Thomas says, are “assistants to the assistant coaches.”
This is where you just want to sigh, isn’t it? This script feels all too familiar: Accusation, defensive response, the marshalling of facts on one side running up against a competing set of facts on the other. It’s often said that we don’t talk about race. Seems to me, we’realways talking about race—but rarely in a way that sheds more light than heat. “When people think they’re talking about race, they really aren’t,” writes African-American syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. “They are talking instead about the myths, resentments, projections and suppositions by which they justify half-baked notions about who those ‘other’ people are.”
When Starbucks recently tried to spur a conversation on race by encouraging their baristas to engage their customers on the topic, the idea was quickly tabled: Just give me my double mocha macchiato and stop asking where I stand on affirmative action seemed to be the prevailing feeling.
But that was because, as Pitts has suggested, we need smarter discussions about race. “Before we can have a fruitful ‘conversation on race,’” he writes, “we need to first have education on race.” So we need data, yes, but most of all, we need a sense of curiosity about and empathy for those who hold ideas different from our own. As Pitts suggests, that’s a hard place to get to with all the baggage we carry when the subject is “race.”
Which is why Wharton’s Ken Shropshire, author of Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports, says we can make more progress talking about race without actually using the word. When I call him and lay out the background of the Chip Kelly race saga, he issues a heavy sigh. “This is why it’s so hard to discuss race,” he says. “It’s not like the old days, when, if someone burned a cross on your lawn, they were racist. Now, it’s much more nuanced and we need a nuanced way to talk about it.”
Shropshire has long been one of the nation’s leading thinkers on race in sports—he’s a former protégé of the aforementioned Harry Edwards and leads the research efforts of Major League Baseball’s On-Field Diversity Task Force—and even he’s grown tired of what we talk about when we talk about race. That’s why he says we need to replace the word race with the word respect.
“As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted in calling us all cowards, I believe we have difficulty, as a country, discussing race,” Shropshire writes inSport Matters. “For whatever it does to accelerate the conversation, I contend that we can all talk about respect and what that entails. Respect is a word that resonates from the highest halls of power, to which The Wharton School has provided me entrée today, all the way back to the Crenshaw District in Los Angeles, where I grew up. In the broadest sense, I have concluded that much of what all of us seek for ourselves and others is simple respect. I have found defining respect to be more complicated than I had imagined. Certainly it is about how we treat each other. But even more nuanced, it is about how we believe we should be treated. We hear a lot today, for example, about microaggressions, the smallest measures of disrespect that many do not notice and that others indicate that it is absurd for us to notice. This smallest level and the nuance of how each individual wants to be treated, and believes he or she should be treated, is where we need to focus.”
Reading Shropshire’s book, you think: Finally. Someone has gotten beyond all the finger pointing and shouting and is eminently…reasonable. Shropshire walks us through all the hot-button sports-related racial issues of our day, but all through the lens of his respect thesis. On the issue of the Washington Redskins nickname, for instance:
“Even if a majority of Native Americans and [stadium naming rights sponsor] Federal Express shareholders are fine with the use of the name, there is a need to act,” writes Shropshire. “Why disrespect even a small segment of society, especially when alternatives exist? This takes us into the perception of disrespect, too. Even if the Redskins leadership truly believe they are correct, should they not be sensitive to what someone perceives as the respect they deserve, particularly if this perception is reasonable?”
Wharton’s Shropshire says we too often talk past one another when the subject is race. Instead of more finger-pointing conversations, he suggests we talk about respect, about how we treat one another and how we expect to be treated.
This is actually a radical notion: In effect, Shropshire suggests not having the racial argument in the way we’re so accustomed to having it. Give up on trying to convince the other side that they’re wrong. Instead, hear them—and then work through it so you can come to an understanding. Years ago, before she was a one-name icon, Oprah exhibited this very trait. At the time, she was a Chicago talk-show host who stumbled into saying something that offended some Jewish viewers. She showed up to a meeting with local Anti-Defamation League representatives and, rather than arguing or being defensive, she looked at the conversation as an opportunity to grow. “Okay,” she began by saying, “help me understand what I did wrong here.”
So how would the Shropshire postulate play out in our local football universe? First, Tra Thomas would not have been so quick to air such an incendiary charge; calling Chip Kelly a racist not only inflames what could be a measured conversation, it disrespects the man without trying to understand his motivations. But once the allegation was out there, Chip Kelly would not dismiss it; he would acknowledge that Thomas and maybe some other players felt disrespected, and he’d privately walk them through his real football reasons for making the personnel moves he made. After all, in the absence of an articulated rationale, it’s easy to make assumptions about motive and take offense.
But Shropshire would have Kelly and the Eagles go further. “The key to preventing these types of flare-ups is no longer just having a diverse workforce,” he says. “It’s actually diversity and inclusion.” The frequency of episodes in which the races talk past one another can be lessened when those in position to make organizational policy hear from a diversity of voices. Amongst the Eagles’ executive administration, all eight positions—from Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie on down—are held by whites. Had there been a black face at that decision-making table, Shropshire suggests, there might have been a better chance that someone said, “Hey, our black players may feel disrespected” that they were re-signing Cooper and jettisoning black stars.
In effect, the Shropshire prescription is simply to lower the volume. Don’t be so quick to accuse and don’t be so quick to dismiss. Instead, just listen. “There’s way too much shouting and not enough listening when we talk about race,” says Shropshire, whose own life story shows how sports can lead the way when it comes to social change. Born and raised in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, Shropshire earned a football scholarship to Stanford. From there, came Columbia Law and, now, an Ivy League teaching post. For all his accomplishments, his latest endeavor might be the most lasting. He’s been helping Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, develop a first-of-its-kind institute focusing on equality, respect, diversity and inclusion in sports. Ross’s team, you will remember, was rocked by a bullying scandal between two offensive linemen that contained chilling examples of racism, homophobia, and sexism. But the saga’s constant through-line? A corrosive lack of respect in the locker room. “As Ross said to me in our initial conversation about some of these very issues, ‘It’s about race, but it’s not all about race,’” Shropshire writes.
The institute is still a work in progress, but make no mistake: Shropshire’s audacious goal is to change the way we talk about race, to simultaneously broaden the conversation andmake it less scary to have. That way, ultimately, we can go straight to the question Shropshire, the fan, asked at the close of our lengthy call, which had everything to do with the escape that football is meant to be: “Hey, you think we still have a chance to trade up for [coveted draft-pick] Mariota?”
This story first appeared on The Citizen on 04.01.15.