February 2, 2007

Race Pervades Ivy Sports Scene

Print More

You didn’t have to step inside McGraw Hall to learn a history lesson over the last two weeks. It was headline news on TV, newspapers and web sites everywhere. On Jan. 21, Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears became the first African-American head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl. Hours later, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts became the second.

Is this newsworthy? Yes, it’s huge. Should we care? Absolutely. This should be important to everyone, no matter what the color of their skin. As American citizens, as football fans, as members of the Ivy League and the Cornell community, Sunday night is a big deal. Race, whether we like it or not, is still an issue at the local and national level.

The experience of a black coach or athlete in the Ivy League is different from any other in the country. A century ago, the Ancient Eight stood head and shoulders above peer institutions because of the opportunities for blacks in athletics. Frederick “Fritz” Pollard was a star on the gridiron for Brown, leading the Bears to the Rose Bowl in 1916. In 1920, Pollard was one of the first two black players in the NFL, and became the league’s first black head coach a year later. Jerome “Brud” Holland ’38 was the first black student-athlete to suit up for the football team, and was one of five black players selected as an All-American in the first half of the 20th century. Despite receiving the second-highest number of votes for the 1937 All-American team, Southern newspapers wouldn’t run Holland’s photograph out of fear of a negative response from their readers.

The modern day incarnation of Ivy League athletics is less inspiring. With the departure of former Cornell volleyball head coach Deitre Collins-Parker, who is black, for Georgia, Cornell and Princeton have the distinction of being the only two Ivy League schools without a single racial minority represented among the ranks of its head coaches.

The Ivy League website boasts that each member school averages 35 varsity teams, creating about 280 slots for head coaches in the conference. After calling sports information offices and visiting athletic websites, I found that there are less than 20 non-white head coaches in the Ancient Eight. Of the coaches that make up that seven percent, just five individuals lead traditional revenue programs. Brown, Columbia, Yale and Dartmouth have African-American head coaches for men’s basketball.
Columbia gave the Ivy League a preemptive taste of the media fervor surrounding Dungy and Smith when the Lions hired Norries Wilson on Dec. 11, 2005, making him the first African-American football head coach in conference history.

“To have a black [football] coach in the Ivy League is huge,” said senior Matt Grant. “The numbers in the Ivy League are down all over the place. It’s probably the only league in the country dominated by white players.”

Grant, who is black, was a two-year starter at defensive back for the football team. He and his teammates recognize and joke about the unique racial makeup of Ivy League football teams. For the last two years, they’ve even designated the last Thursday practice of the season as “Black Thursday,” a day on which all the black players on the team take the field dressed from head to toe in black clothing.

“It’s open enough and free enough that we can joke about it,” Grant said. “But the coaches know if someone gets out of line, they’re the first one down their throats.”

Collins-Parker said that during her time at Cornell, she was aware of her status as the lone black head coach.

“I think you notice it because you are [black], not because I was treated that way,” she said.

Although Collins-Parker patrolled the sidelines for Cornell while Grant tore up the field, both are in agreement when it comes to the latest accomplishments of Dungy and Smith.

“Was I rooting for them because of it?” Collins-Parker said of the coaches’ race. “Absolutely. And that’s the sad part.”

Grant, who has had debates with his roommates recently over whether the media attention to the color of Dungy and Smith’s skin is warranted, agrees that this first is “very important.” He pointed out that, when their playing days are over, many black athletes don’t have the financial support necessary to survive on the salary of a graduate assistant, the first step to moving up the coaching ranks. Collins-Parker, who is a member of the AVCA Minority Coaches Committee, said she saw the Super Bowl as a triumph over a “hesitation” in the athletics community to consider minority coaches.

“Football is behind, period,” she said. “[And] as much as it can be pointed out in the Ivy League, it’s the culture of sports.”

It’s an unfortunate, uncomfortable truth. Out of 119 Division I-A football coaches, just seven are black, while about 50 percent of the athletes they coach are black. The first two head coaches to reach the NBA Finals were K.C. Jones and Al Attles in 1975, a full 14 years before Art Shell was hired by the Oakland Raiders to become the first black head coach of the league’s modern era.

Maybe it is just a matter of time. Someday, there won’t be any more “firsts” to be achieved — whether it’s a black man coaching a Super Bowl team or a woman sitting in the White House. But until that’s the case, we should acknowledge those who lead the way.