Race & Sports: An Interview of Richard Lapchick

by Bob Wing, ColorLines editor

Richard Lapchick is one of the most influential civil rights activists in sports. He is the founder and director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and, along with Arthur Ashe, was the U.S. leader of the international campaign to boycott South Africa in sport for more than 20 years.

Lapchick is also the director of the National Consortium of Academics and Sports, a group of more than 180 colleges that has enabled more than 15,000 athletes to return to NCAS schools to pursue their degrees. He advises professional leagues on racial and gender hiring practices and each year publishes the Racial Report Card, detailing the progress, or lack thereof, toward racial and gender equality in professional and college sports.

Lapchick holds a doctorate in international race relations. His latest book is Never Before, Never Again, the autobiography of the great Grambling College football coach Eddie Robinson.

Q: What personal experiences were important in your becoming a civil rights activist in sports?

A: When I was five years old, I looked out my bedroom window in Yonkers, NY, and saw my father’s image hanging from a tree with people picketing under the tree. For years, I would pick up the phone and hear people repeating “nigger lover, nigger lover, nigger lover.” At first, I didn’t know what that meant except that a lot of people didn’t like my dad, who was my hero. It turned out that my dad, who was a former NBA star and was then a championship coach for the New York Knicks, had made Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton the first black player to be signed to play in the NBA.

Q: What have been the most memorable moments of your career?

A: In 1978, the South African tennis team had been banned by the European Zone of the Davis Cup on account of apartheid, but it had managed to get accepted to play in the North American Zone. I was the national chairperson of the U.S. groups that had come together to boycott South Africa in sports, so I went down to Nashville where the competition was to take place to try to build a protest. Anti-apartheid was not a big movement in this country in 1978, but Steve Biko, the South African student leader, was killed in a South African jail cell in September of 1977, so pressure was finally starting to build against South African apartheid.

I was asked by African governments to announce to the press that they would boycott the upcoming Los Angeles Olympics if the South African team was allowed to come. Later, a member of the press told me that the NLT Corporation, the financial backers of the Davis Cup, was pulling out and it looked like the matches were going to collapse. I announced this to the crowd assembled outside, and they went wild. When I flew home to Virginia that night, I thought maybe, for the first time, I’d done something worthwhile.

The next night I was working late in my college office in the school’s library, which closed at 10:30. At 10:45, there was a knock at the door. I assumed it was the campus security just checking on why there was a light on so late. Instead, it was two men wearing stocking masks who proceeded to cause me liver and kidney damage, a hernia, and a concussion. They carved “nigger” in my stomach with a pair of office scissors and left me unconscious.

The local police leaked to the press that they thought I had self-inflicted these wounds. And Connie Mulder, the South African Minister of Information (who was under investigation for having spent $72 million to buy favorable press coverage at the time), proudly announced that the destruction of Richard Lapchick was a victory for the South African government. This led the U.S. Justice Department to investigate a triangular relationship between the local police in Virginia, the Virginia Ku Klux Klan whose Grand Wizard was welcomed as a guest of state in South Africa five weeks after the attack, and the South African security forces.

We had sent our two childrena five-year-old and a three-year-oldto their grandparents for safety. As soon as they returned, I received a kidnap threat in my office and our five-year-old son turned up missing. These were the most terrifying hours of my life. The police didn’t return our call for two weeks. What actually happened still isn’t clear. Some new neighbors had apparently taken my son for a ride. They mysteriously moved out of the area soon thereafter. The United Nations called that Monday morning and offered me a job with the Special Committee on Apartheid. They were literally trying to rescue me out of Virginia; they knew what was going on.

The experience was horrible. But it also made me stronger and, ironically, gave me more credibility to do my work.

Q: I have the perception that the vast majority of girls’ sports is played in the white suburbs. Are girls’ and women’s sports more racially segregated than boys’ and mens’?

A: This is not just your perception, it’s a reality. The opportunities for girls who live in the cities to participate in youth sports is 15 percent of what it is for girls in the suburbs. The increased importance of facilities, money, and parental participation is skewing girls’ sports to the suburbs. One of our biggest new programs is called Urban Youth Sports which seeks to create sports opportunities in the city of Boston, especially for girls. For instance, together with the city, we are starting a middle school field hockey league this spring for 100 girls of color.

Q: What do you see as the most positive trends in sports regarding race and gender equity?

A: Some sports organizations have improved their hiring practices, even if not to where they need to be. I think the NBA as a league is by far the best. The NBA contracted with us to do diversity management training with all 730 people in the league office in 1998. Major League Soccer did the same this year and we are in discussions with the other leagues. I consider this to be absolutely critical. While having more people of color and women in the administrations is good in and of itself, if they don’t feel welcome and don’t feel there is opportunity for change and advancement up the hierarchy to the top, they will be dissatisfied and will quickly leave the organizations.

A program we have called SportsCap may end up having the greatest long-term impact. It brings together decision-makers in the sports world with organizations that represent women and people of color. So, if you are the president of an NBA team and want to hire an African American woman with an MBA, we could put you in touch with the National Black MBA Association and generate a list of names of people who meet all the qualifications.

Q: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to equity?

A: The worst part of what’s going on in sports is that change is so slow. We finally have commissioners in all of the professional leagues who are committed to positive change, but neither they nor the executive director of the NCAA have the authority to mandate that an individual team change its hiring practices. There are still front offices that use the old boy network or who simply don’t want to hire people of color because of racism.

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