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Tackling Race in Sports


John Parrella doesn’t mince words. “I’m against articles like this,” says the San Diego Chargers’ popular defensive tackle. “I don’t understand why this article is necessary. It’s frustrating to me.”

The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Parrella nonetheless obliges a reporter visiting the Chargers’ locker room. Parrella, who is white, is in the minority on a football team where roughly 80 percent of the players are African-American. The reason he’s frustrated with talk about race: He doesn’t view his teammates as black or white. He views them as teammates. His friend Norman Hand, who is African-American, was traded to New Orleans before last season. His new road roommate is Raylee Johnson, another African-American.

“But I don’t look at it as black and white,” declares Parrella. “Raylee and I are friends, and that’s that. We go to war together. And we watch each other’s back.”

For those who see sports as a metaphor for life, there’s glimmering hope that athletics can help lead the way toward a color-blind society. According to All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who is of American Samoan descent, color barriers are broken in a locker room. “You can’t be a racist in here. If you are, you’ll be exposed,” says Seau. “The key is having leaders within the locker room who direct the purpose of the team. And the only purpose of a team should be winning games.”

San Diego attorney Ron Mix, an NFL Hall of Famer and Chargers star in the old AFL days, recalls how it was in 1959, when he played football for the University of Southern California.

“Willie Wood, an African-American, and I, a Jew, were selected to be cocaptains of the USC football team,” says Mix. “Neither Willie nor I could join a fraternity because of race and religion. But our white Christian teammates only cared about one thing: that we had the stuff to lead them.”

Mix remembers Sid Gillman, the former Chargers head coach, breaking ground in professional football in the early 1960s, when teams were about 70 percent white. “During training camp, Sid assigned roommates by position, so there would be a natural basis for integration,” says Mix. “Blacks and whites roomed together, socialized together and bonded in the way that teammates do.”

In the mid-’60s, says Mix, the AFL’s All-Pro players boycotted an all-star game in New Orleans because of the city’s segregation laws. The game was moved to Houston. The next year, because New Orleans wanted to apply for an NFL franchise, the city repealed its segregation laws.

The Chargers’ Rodney Harrison, who is African-American, believes players of any color have an equal shot at playing any position in the National Football League of 2001.

Even—finally—quarterback, long considered a white domain. But when it comes to being a coach, general manager or owner? “There is a disparity there,” says Harrison. “It’s unequal. There are a lot of minorities capable of managing or owning teams, but you don’t see it. We have a long way to go in that area.”

Approximately 70 percent of the NFL’s players are black. There are just two black head coaches among 31 NFL teams (the Minnesota Vikings’ Dennis Green and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tony Dungy). Of the last 41 head-coach hires among all teams, only one was a black man (former Philadelphia Eagles coach Ray Rhodes). The Chargers, who have changed coaches four times since 1996, have never had a black head coach.

Major League Baseball fares just slightly better than the NFL. There are 30 teams; six have managers who are minorities—including the Milwaukee Brewers’ Davey Lopes, a former San Diego Padres first-base coach. The Padres have never had a minority manager.

There is only one minority general manager in all of Major League Baseball: Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox. The highest ranking African-American ever in the Padres’ front office was Dave Stewart, once a special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers.

In professional baseball’s melting pot, about 30 percent of today’s players are Latino, says Enrique Morones, vice president of Hispanic and international marketing for the Padres. “As far as the players,” says Morones, “I think teams will play is the best at a position—though it’s not always been that way.

“But there’s not parity for all, and there aren’t the same opportunities for everyone in the front offices,” he says. “We’re fortunate in San Diego. We were the first team to concentrate on Hispanic marketing.” That practice began in 1995. The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Florida Marlins picked up on the concept in 1997.

Morones believes Padres owner John Moores believes in racial equality, but Morones says more than anything else, economic factors have caused owners to focus on Latinos. “Owners like the color green more than any other color,” he says. “Before John Moores bought the team, 50,000 of the 1 million fans who came to games were Latino. Now, it’s 600,000 of 2.5 million.”

The Padres advertise special promotions in Mexico for many Sunday games. As a result, “We get a spike in anonymous calls after Sunday games from people wondering why we fly the Mexican flag at Qualcomm,” says Tim Katzman, a special assistant to the president of the Padres. “I think it’s more of a nationalist view than a racist view, but the line does get blurred.”

—Ron Donoho

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