Bobby Mitchell paused and stared ahead for several seconds. Moderator Maury Povich had just posed a loaded question to the NFL Hall of Famer who integrated the Washington Redskins in 1962 and later served as the team’s assistant general manager for 20 years.
How come he never landed a top spot?
Several more seconds passed as Mitchell wrestled with his thoughts before finally giving an answer. “I never accepted the premise that I didn’t get the GM job because I’m black,” he said Wednesday night during the sixth annual Shirley Povich Symposium at the University of Maryland.
“From the start, I was handling all five departments in the front office,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know if anyone has ever done that. But this is a business. You have to be liked and you have to be wanted.”
Then he broke the tension with some levity: “I had the greatest job of anyone in football, because GMs get fired!”
Fellow panelist Michael Wilbon, of ESPN, clearly thought a mistake had been made: “If the Redskins had given Mitchell the job he deserved, they wouldn’t have spent the last 15 years being a joke.”
Mitchell and Wilbon were joined on the panel by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, documentarian Theresa Moore and former Terrapins football player Darryl Hill. They were convened to discuss the ground broken by Mitchell and Hill, who in 1963 became the first African-American to play for the Terps and in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Five decades later, tales of Mitchell and Hill and separate hotels sound like ancient history. Sports reflected society but they also influenced society, becoming integrated first and at a faster pace. As some panelists mentioned, sports became one of the few meritocracies in society once the spoken and unspoken barriers were removed.
While the playing fields are now open to all comers, the front offices have been slower to embrace inclusiveness. Access to the sidelines, i.e. coaching jobs, is better than ever, but that didn’t materialize on its own.
Tagliabue said he had an idea to force clubs to interview minority candidates, but knew the owners wouldn’t buy it coming from him. So he formed a committee and named Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney as the chair.
“I wrote a letter and had Dan sign it,” Tagliabue said. “The letter said the owners needed to have a rule on interviewing minority candidates.”
And thus was born the “Rooney Rule.”
But it’s important to not generalize when talking about NFL hiring practices. Rooney and the late Al Davis didn’t need a mandate to look beyond candidates’ skin when making job offers. “There are 32 teams and they’re all different,” Tagliabue said. “You had a George Preston Marshall (former Redskins owner) and an Edward Bennett Williams (former Redskins managing partner). You won’t find two men more different than that.”
Race is an uncomfortable topic of conversation in this country, where folks on one side of the line often see what the other side doesn’t see. And vice versa.
That’s especially true in sports, where athletes are among the nation’s most prominent African-Americans but less visible in management. During a discussion on the scarcity of minority head coaches in college football, a question from Twitter was posted on the overhead projector: “Are there bad [assistant] coaches who keep their job because they’re black?”
No one on the panel addressed that question, but it demonstrates the divide that still exists. It also reminded me of my experience when I moved to southwest Florida for a columnist position in 2000.
My first column was on former NBA star Rick Barry — then coach of the now-defunct Florida Flame — and the subjects varied greatly over the next few months. In roughly my 40th column, the topic was black quarterbacks.
“That’s all you ever write about!” wrote one reader.
Several months passed before I broached race again. And sure enough, the charge came again: “That’s all you ever write about!”
My theory? In seeing my picture affixed to every column, some readers affixed “race” to every column … without even realizing it.
The symposium’s namesake, the late Washington Post sports columnist, was fearless in tackling questions of race. He championed integration for Major League Baseball before Jackie Robinson arrived, and constantly zinged Marshall’s foot-dragging as Washington was the last NFL team to integrate.
Povich wrote lines such as: “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.” In another column, he noted “the Redskins colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian.”
I think he would’ve been proud of Wednesday night’s panel, while encouraging us to fight on. Because there’s still more work to do.
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