By Barry Person, Jr.
The current demand for civil and social justice has never been higher nor more justified. One of the driving forces behind the active and hopefully push towards societal change is sport. Athletes of all genders, sexual orientations, performance levels, and sports continue to speak out regarding the need for reform, joining them in these efforts are many sporting organizations as well. However, what is missing from these calls for justice is the fact that until we see these changes within sporting organizations, society itself will continue to lag behind. For sport is the ultimate microcosm of society and much of how we here in North America function is driven by what we see in sport. Cooper, Macaulay, and Rodriguez (2019) supported this claim stating that the institution of sport does not operate in isolation from broader society. Instead sport serves as a site where societal inequities such as racism, sexism, economic stratification, and other forms of oppression are reproduced, exacerbated, and/or ignored (Cooper, Macaulay, & Rodriguez, 2019). While sport itself is not geared to be systematically racist, the consistent organizational practices and regulations (checks and balances) uphold various restrictions to equality. This essay will take a look at the recent attention given to Mike Gundy, the Rooney Rule, and NASCAR, to highlight how to really change society we must first change sport itself.
Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy has taken on some heat lately for being caught in a photo wearing an OAN network t-shirt. Almost immediately upon being discovered, Oklahoma State star running back Chuba Hubbard spoke out against the image. Now, it has come to light the potential use of the N word by Gundy during a football game back in 1989. While Gundy remains on his image restoration path, he also still holds his job and support of his athletic administration and football team. While Gundy states his regrets and vows to provide positive change, the real message is being missed. The fact at any point that a leader of a diverse sporting organization would feel comfortable to use such language and/or wear such potentially offensive attire is the true issue. Let us not forget back in 2007, Mike Gundy is the same coach who went on a tirade during a press conference ripping the media for writing articles which attacked his players. Worth noting is that his response was driven by the attention drawn to the article by a parent of one of the football athletes. Also, worth noting is that within that press conference Gundy demands that if the media were to come after anyone, they should come after him because he is a man and that such articles are what’s wrong with society today. Funny how the tide has turned as Gundy now has to call upon the same players he once stood up for, in order to be saved from the very things he demanded be turned his way. Now that the tables have turned, why is the true manly thing to do (stepping down) not being put on the table by Gundy himself, or his administration? Many will state because of the money pulled in by the football program, but in reality, it is the structure of the sporting system. The checks and balances of sport strongly support the blind following of fault and regret of coaches by star athletes who seldom look like their coach, given that ultimately it is the coach who holds the power. Instead of battling and sustaining power within the coaching athlete relationship, why not just key in on doing what is right or should we say the manly/womanly thing to do (take accountability and remove yourself).
Continuing on with coaching and football one cannot ignore the recent amendments and rejections of the NFL’s Rooney Rule. In May, the NFL expanded the guidelines of the Rooney Rule to require all teams to now include more interviews of minority candidates for coaching, senior football operations, and general manager vacancies. The idea to improve draft positioning or total picks for the hiring of minority candidates for these positions, was also discussed but ultimately rejected and rightfully so. While the advancement of potential opportunities for minority coaching and leadership positions within the NFL is overall a positive thing, such rules in any organization further illustrate the inherent checks and balances with sport. The need to require any organization to merely interview minorities is a travesty, such things should just be normal practice. Brighter alternatives to these practices are not rooted in racism or even disrespect but yet again administrative power. African Americans have been withheld from holding coaching and higher administrative positions simply because it would upend the checks and balances put in place. The check is to make sure that players stay in their lane and continue to focus on playing the sport, while the balance is to make sure that those who most often times do not look like the majority of athletes are given oversight. The need for diversity and equality within sporting administration should not be labeled by administrative rules as if things are to be done out of pity and/or submission, but instead initiatives should be done to show and express unity amongst all who contribute to sport. As long as the imagery remains that minority hires, interviews, and opportunities are merely suggested proper practice over actual willingness, the suppressive checks and balances of sport will continue to prevail.
On my final lap around the track, I cannot pass on the opportunity to address the recent Confederate flag ban by NASCAR. First, I must admit that never in my wildest imagination did I see this moment coming, even as a completely uninterested NASCAR fan to begin with. However, to see the ultimate sport check and balance come crashing down does provide a clear vision as to how sport can right itself and society at the same time. I will not waste time to discuss the stereotypes of the typical NASCAR fan prior to this ruling, as that is what the internet is for. However, I will discuss the potential future of the new NASCAR moving forward. For the new NASCAR has the opportunity to be the shining star of the power and potential sport has to promote diversity, unity, and justice. NASCAR for the longest time has been dominated by one particular grouping of individuals from fan, driver, owner, and employee. And at no time was this norm ever questioned, which was made even more evident by the religious flying of the Confederate flag in some fashion during any and all events. While the eternal debate of what the Confederate flag represents might never end, I will take the higher road and assume that we can all intellectually agree on the sour roots that the flag is best associated with. The Confederate flag and NASCAR of old, in relation to sport checks and balances was quite clear: enter at your own risk. That was until Bubba Wallace spoke up as the first full-time African American stock car racer on the injustice of the checks and balances within NASCAR. The trick now is getting society to give the same love to NASCAR as it does its other leagues. NASCAR has struggled with viewership as of late but this can and should quickly change, given its attempt to join mainstream sport society. As more minority and non-stereotypical NASCAR fans begin to express interest and support for the sport the more the call for the removal of the Confederate flag will be valued by society at large.
Sport has the unique ability to serve as a universal language across the globe. But the language of sport is strongest here in North America, the same country in which the call for social and racial reform is also the loudest. The problem is that the language of sport in North America is one that currently supports the restriction and classification of African Americans through its institutional checks and balances. Checks and balances that allow Mike Gundy, Drew Brees, Curt Schilling, and Kyle Larson to openly express opinions on anything without the fear of their careers ending, unlike their minority counterparts (Colin Kaepernick). Yet while athletes of all races have spoken out and vow to fight for change, it is sport itself which we must change for these proclamations to become a reality. Removing the checks and balances which silently hold the racial rank and order of sporting organization structure, is the most prominent way for America to hear the societal demand that enough is enough. Until sport embraces equality for all at every level of its organizations, then the reminder to society to continue to hold on to what has worked in the past will remain.
Cooper, J. N., Macaulay, C., & Rodriguez, S. H. (2019). Race and resistence: A typology of African American sport activism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 54 (2), 151-181. doi: 10.1177/1012690217718170.
Barry Person Jr.
Sport and Recreation Management