OU Coach Proves That Words Carry A Weighty Wallop

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: May 3, 2005

Larry Cochell

ST. LOUIS — One of the greatest deceptions is that old ditty, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Only a child would believe such a laughable nursery rhyme – or perhaps a fool – because the rest of us ought to know better.

The rest of us should be wise enough to never underestimate the power of the written or spoken word. Words have weight and deliver clout. On the tongues of smooth charmers, cunning liars, literate poets, poignant comics, passionate prophets or dangerous demagogues, words can become powerful and persuasive weapons. Words have started wars and ended them.

So if you discount the power of words, then essentially you ignore literature and dismiss history. Look no further than the sights and sounds of words when they come tumbling out of the misguided mouths of fools.

In one remarkably candid, staggeringly ignorant and stunningly revealing ramble last week, the case for the words’ potency on the tongues of fools was made by recently defrocked University of Oklahoma baseball coach Larry Cochell. In an off-air conversation with two ESPN broadcasters before the national telecast of a game, Cochell apparently thought he was giving one of his African-American players a compliment when he said of outfielder Joe Dunigan, “There’s no nigger in him,” and “There are honkies and white people and there are niggers and black people. Dunigan is a good black kid.”

It was no surprise that Cochell, 65, resigned after details of the racial slur were made public. In the process, because whenever we get a full-scale collision at the intersection of race and sports, fascinating conversations and spirited debates rise. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can actually cull some intelligent meaning from it all.

Hopefully, this is one of those moments. So let’s put aside nonsense about racial double standards that some shrill voices would like to interject into the conversation. Cochell was not a victim of any double standard. He was the unfortunate victim of his own self-inflicted wounds of incredible stupidity and cultural ignorance.

The unsettling insight we gained into Cochell made it impossible for him to stay in charge of the OU program. This is a man who is in charge of recruiting, scholarships and playing time. People with these sort of cultural blind spots have no business in charge of anything.

But here’s a more subtle point that may have been missed in some of the misplaced emotional firestorm. Even if Cochell thought what he said was benign, that mere fact alone lets me know how grossly unqualified Cochell is to be able to make such dangerous and difficult cultural judgments he obviously felt quite comfortable attempting to make. From this one revealing slip of the tongue, it’s fairly apparent how impossible it was for Cochell to separate the wheat from the chaff for an entire race of people he clearly knows very little about.

If I put 25 young African-American males from various economic and social backgrounds in a room and asked Cochell to tell me which ones were “black people” and which were folks of the N-word variety, my mind starts to get dizzy with the possibilities of what criteria he would use.

Would it be the number of tattoos on a kid’s arms? If a kid had cornrows, what would you call him? If he were a well-spoken kid from the suburbs, what would he call him? Does an earring do the trick?

So how would he make these critical distinctions?

By sight? By a quick conversation? If the kid speaks with a heavy urban accent is he good or bad? If he went to a well-heeled prep school, where does he stack up? If his dad is a millionaire, is he “black” or something else? If he was raised in a single-parent home, what category does he fall in? Can we honestly believe this guy’s qualified to make that decision?

Here’s a far more unsettling question: How many deserving black kids have missed out on scholarships during Cochell’s 39-year coaching career because of one of his dazzling social-cultural misdiagnoses?

Now what was that about how words can’t hurt?