Sparks Fly At Morehouse Panel On Black Athletes

By Add Seymour Jr.
Updated: May 11, 2007

ATLANTA — Negative images of law-breaking Black athletes stem from societal issues, not something inherent to the athletes, according to a star-studded panel on the Black athlete at Morehouse College.

“We have not stood up and taken ownership of ourselves,” said NFL Hall of Fame running back, actor and activist Jim Brown. “We have a Willie Lynch concept. Whose responsibility is it to change that? It’s ours.”

Brown was part of an A-list group on a panel about the Black athlete, a forum put together by filmmaker and Morehouse graduate Spike Lee. The panel included Rutgers University women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer, Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, and Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock.

The panel discussion, held this past Monday evening before a standing room crowd of more than 300 students and sports luminaries, was part of the school’s introduction of long-time sports journalist Ron Thomas as head of Morehouse’s new sports journalism program — a program Thomas said will intensely focus on research, writing and interviewing techniques with the goal of increasing the number of minority sports journalists.

“All of those ingredients will prepare Morehouse students to go into the newsroom, and be able to go into any department in the newsroom,” Thomas says. “Many believe that increasing the number of Black sports writers, particularly those covering sports like football and basketball where Blacks athletes are in the majority, will help increase the understanding of those players and more positively affect how they are depicted.”

Several years ago, Lee and the late author Ralph Wiley conceived the idea for a sports journalism program as a way of increasing Black representation among the nation’s sports writers.

“It always amazed me when Ralph would tell me he’d be one of the only brothers in the press box,” Lee said. “It’s taken awhile. But we felt tonight would be a good way to kick off the program.”

The kickoff turned out to be a spicy, nearly three-hour conversation about media’s depictions of Black athletes, and what responsibility each of the parties bears in shaping those perceptions, among other things.

Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas said the media too often focuses on the negative, while Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler said some athletes get too comfortable and put themselves in a situation where they are in the negative spotlight.

The most highly charged 15 minutes of the forum came when Stringer questioned Whitlock about a column he wrote in the wake of former talk radio host Don Imus’ labeling of Rutgers players as “nappy headed ‘hos.”

In his April 11 column, Whitlock labeled Stringer an opportunist for holding a “nationally televised recruiting celebration expertly disguised as a news conference” and questioned the motives of civil rights icons Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who led calls for Imus’s firing.

The Imus flap presented “an opportunity for Stringer, Jackson and Sharpton to step on victim platforms and elevate themselves and their agendas,” Whitlock wrote.

Monday at Morehouse, Stringer’s anger at Whitlock’s column was on full display.

“I’m amazed,” she said. “I just want to understand your mindset. I want to understand people like you. I’ll be doggoned if I sit back and let that man speak of them as he did,” Stringer said.

“The truth of the matter is [Jackson and Sharpton] were the only people who spoke up. I didn’t care if they fired Imus or not. But I know this — I was going to defend those young ladies.”

“I stand by everything I wrote,” Whitlock responded to groans from the audience. “I thought this was handled inappropriately.” Whitlock said his point was that Black people needed to focus on themselves instead of people like Imus.

“We have to deal with us and not get so caught up with them,” he said.

Other highlights of the discussion included Claire Smith’s prediction that baseball superstar Barry Bonds, who’s been dogged by allegations that he’s used performance-enhancing drugs, will make Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. “If his name is on the ballot, he will have my vote because he was a hall of famer before” the steroid allegations, said Smith, one of the few Black women baseball Hall of Fame voters.