March 6, 2002

Hog Paradise Lost

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Racism is one of those dirty little words that has been overused so often in American culture and rhetoric that we now prefer to sweep it under the carpet. We then promise ourselves that we won’t let it peek out until it’s just the right time and severity of circumstances.

Well, in the case of the “buying out” of former Arkansas basketball head coach Nolan Richardson its time to unveil this concept we’d rather ignore. Upon first hearing Richardson’s comments two weeks ago that Arkansas University, the media, and his fellow head coaches at the school were all racist and preferential to white people, I sloughed it off as blame-dumping.

I continued to be under the impression that this former national championship coach was now whining because he was on his last legs as a coach until now.

Thanks to an argument that took place Saturday night with a colleague of mine here at the Sun, and a little research into the aftermath of the scandal, I have now changed my mind.

Yes, even sports junkies can be wrong about the way of things in the sports world.

My error was in the assumptions I made having heard a skeletal form of the news.

I knew this much:

1. Nolan Richardson was fired after saying that just about everyone involved with his program were treating African-Americans without the same respect as their white counterparts.

2. Arkansas basketball has been through a number of struggles the last few years and hasn’t advanced anywhere in the NCAA’s since their Final Four appearances in 1994 and 1995.

3. This year the Razorbacks are 12-12 and in near imminent danger of seeing no postseason action for the first time in decades.

As any good journalist would, I took these facts and came to a logical conclusion: Richardson needed a scapegoat and as a Black male in a largely White institution he was presented any easy target.

However, in the aftermath of the incident Richardson seems little more than an honest man begging someone to listen to what he has to say after all these years. Many, including myself ask in conversations on the topic, ‘Why wasn’t Richardson saying all this during his championship years?’

Well, for one thing, he was.

Richardson’s claims to being discriminated against by those surrounding him in the program date back well before the days of Hog Heaven and the constant presence of former President Clinton at Arkansas games.

Also, as long as a major college basketball program is winning few people have anything to say about the coach. Trips to the Final Four, lucrative apparel deals, packed crowds, and an influx of Alumni funds can often silence even the strongest convictions. In this case, the racist officials at Arkansas went suddenly colorblind when Scotty Thurman, Corliss Williamson, and the coach himself were donning the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Of course, when the tide turned for Arkansas, as it can for any program anywhere, all that suppressed ignorance trickled back into the picture. I imagine the envy and hate these men felt as they watched an African-American coach succeed was just waiting to explode when given the chance. This year was that chance, and Richardson has suffered its effects.

When asked whether the University had fired Richardson for his racially motivated comments Chancellor John White said, “In no way was it an action based on him speaking his mind, more because of a feeling that a time for change had come.”

I’ll let you, the reader, meditate on those words of obvious bent truth.

Richardson is surely one of the most notable figures in all college sports and not in a Bobby Knight-chair throwing sort of way either. He is a class act, an unbelievable recruiter, and a brilliant basketball mind and coach. He is not the stimulus for change and upheaval in a program.

Furthermore, Richardson’s long time assistant coach and friend Mike Anderson has lately gotten lost in the sauce of the national conversation on this topic. Anderson is one of the most sought-after assistants in the nation and has turned down numerous offers at D-1 programs to stay with Richardson at Arkansas. Anderson is a crafty recruiter, a family man, and an apprentice of the Arkansas dynasty. He would also be the obvious choice as Richardson’s replacement – but unfortunately for Anderson he too is African-American.

Richardson’s mantra as a coach was “40 minutes of Hell.” He asked the same of his players as he gave them: everything they had for the duration of a game.

Now Richardson finds himself in the hellish grip of racism and in such a case we cannot simply hide the issue. The R-word is alive and well and until we call attention to such things we will forever allow ourselves to substitute silence for truth.

Archived article by Scott Jones