Michigan State civil rights pioneer reminds us — just as he reminded the Big Ten — that silence isn’t always the best option
He remembers the letters. Not so much the sordid specifics — sentiments unprintable then and unconscionable now, pockets of hate, stamped and sealed with a diss — as the volume.
“When I did the Big Ten athletics study about the lack of black officials in sports, I got more hate mail than I got when I worked for Martin Luther King as education director (of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference),” Robert L. Green said. “And I got more hate mail than when I complained about housing discrimination in East Lansing, Michigan.
“So it said to me, as a group, sports fans, they want to win, but they want to win and keep things quiet at the same time. So there are problems out there. And athletes know this.”
Which is fine. What he doesn’t want is silence in the face of injustice, apathy fueled by profit, indifference out of respect for protecting the brand.
Black lives. Blue lives. Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights. Dallas. America’s long hot summer has boiled over to the point where even Michael Jordan, the gold standard for basketball and political disengagement, felt compelled this month to grab the proverbial microphone and plea for everyone to just chill the hell out already.
“He’s got to remember, or maybe he doesn’t remember, he makes his money off poor black kids who spend $200 or $300 on sneakers, when they could spend that money on computers,” said Green, the dean and professor emeritus of Urban Affairs Programs at Michigan State. “And he could (change) that. (But) he’s not going to do that, as long as he sells sneakers, they make money.
“Then you’ve got (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar, who, over the years has always been a person — he made a buck or two, he never made the kind of money Jordan made — who has had a real interest in helping those who were disadvantaged. Those are the people I respect.”
Green deserves that respect, too. Universally.
The longtime administrator and educator has held fast to the maxim that athletes — pros and amateurs alike — have the power to elicit change. Real change. Societal change. Constructive change.
If they want it.
Sometimes, progress — real progress, constructive progress — is subtle. The Big Ten this autumn will feature three African American head football coaches in the same season for the first time in modern league history. Lovie Smith, hired by Illinois earlier this year, joined Penn State’s James Franklin and Purdue’s Darrell Hazell on the dais at Big Ten Media Days, a path furrowed by the late Dennis Green, who became the first black coach in conference annals when Northwestern handed him the keys in 1981.
From 1981-1999, eight black head coaches were hired at FBS schools, and the Big Ten accounted for eight of them. Last December, more than half of all FBS rosters were composed of African American players. Yet the ratio of black head football coaches among FBS membership had fallen below 10 percent.
One step forward, two steps back. And even a body as enlightened as the Big Ten, which proudly opened a path for Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens at Ohio State and a sideline for a young Green in Evanston, needs — from time to time — a little push.
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Robert Green’s role in the integration of the Big Ten started, ironically enough, with a shove. A brawl broke out on Jan. 25, 1972 between the Ohio State and Minnesota men’s basketball teams at Williams Arena. A tense, 50-44 Buckeyes victory had opened with emotions at a fever pitch and was halted with 36 seconds to spare and Ohio State center Luke Witte sprawled on the gymnasium floor, bloodied and barely conscious.
Witte left the game on a stretcher, his cornea scarred, a battering that required 29 stitches to patch. Dozens of players and spectators joined the donnybrook, most notably a young Gophers player — and future baseball Hall-of-Famer — by the name of Dave Winfield, who could be seen punching Ohio State’s Mark Wagar from behind.
In the aftermath, two Minnesota players were suspended for the rest of the season by the school and the Big Ten: Corky Taylor, who was seen kneeing Witte in the head and punching him in the groin, and Ron Behagen, who reportedly stomped on the Buckeye big man’s head as he lay on the ground.
Both were black. Witte was white. Green, who saw justice doled out by a white league office and white school officials, was incensed.
“The Big Ten is segregated, pure and simple,” Green told reporters at the time. “Blacks can run, they can throw the football and dribble the basketball so the fieldhouses and stadiums are filled to overflowing (levels). But they aren’t given any of the jobs on the administrative end of the structure. We want to end that segregation.”
Green was the director of Michigan State’s Center For Urban Affairs at the time of the Buckeyes-Gophers brawl, the broth that finally pushed the lid off a long-simmering pot. A confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., he helped bring the civil rights icon to the Michigan State campus in 1965.
When King was assassinated three years later and several dozen furious students showed up at Green’s house, he told them to abstain from violent response, to control their collective rage and meet at the campus union to vent and discuss their feelings. After the meeting they marched, black and whites together.
“Some athletes, when I was back teaching in the ‘60s, athletes would complain to me — Bubba Smith, George Webster — about the fact that there were very few black officials,” Green recalled. “But they were not as activist-oriented as some are today. There were issues, but there was always fear of retaliation from a coach if they became in any way ‘activist.’
“I’ll never forget: Some of the athletes told me they were punished if they missed practice but they were not punished if they missed class. There was a way to make up class, coaches told them, but there wasn’t a way to make up practice.”
Fearing the suspension of the Minnesota pair as racial backlash meted by white administrators, Green said, a coalition was formed of concerned student-athletes and officials from Michigan State, Indiana, Northwestern and other member schools.
And with it, a plea to commissioner Wayne Duke: Integrate positions of leadership, positions of authority. Or we walk.
“When we asked Wayne Duke about qualified black coaches, black officials, he said he didn’t know any that were really qualified,” Green said. “We said, ‘OK, if you don’t have any coaches for the opening game, then all black athletes aren’t going to play.’”
Green was one of three Spartans administrators who joined with Michigan State student-athletes at news conference in February 1972 to declare that the Big Ten was “obviously segregated,” threatening a walkout or court action.
“And when (Duke) saw that there was a possibility of a boycott, that was so unthinkable,” Green recalled. “He managed to find two black officials for the opening (football) game that year.”
The 1972 football season opened with three African-American officials out of 42 in the league’s pool instead of the one from the year before. The Big Ten also formed a commission that included seven notable league alums, including ex-Illinois great Buddy Young, to counsel athletic directors and coaches on “the problems and inequities faced by the black athlete.”
“So again, I say Wayne Duke did something amazing,” Green said. “We asked him to set up the Big Ten in a position in which the individuals could look (to) make sure (that) faculty were hired in a fair away and coaches were hired in a fair way.
“(Duke) was way ahead of the game. He was well ahead of the other athletic (officials) in the country, so you have to give Wayne Duke some credit.”
The conversations continued, although not without hiccups, even in East Lansing. In the winter of 1975, when Jim Dudley, the only white player on the Michigan State men’s basketball team’s starting five, was injured, Spartans coach Gus Ganakas elected to start a white reserve instead of an all-black starting five — even though his top two reserves were African-American.
The 10 black players on the Spartans roster, incensed, walked out on the team in response. When they returned, Ganakas suspended the lot.
Michigan State rolled out its junior varsity against one of Bob Knight’s better Indiana juggernauts, and the score was as ugly as the events that immediately preceded it. As the 10 black players watched from the stands, the Hoosiers cruised to a 107-55 victory.
“I would say this: There are two sides of sports,” Green said. “One, the players; and two, the management. I think management, in terms of collegiate (sports), are still reluctant to hire African-American coaches and you’re familiar with the research on that, I’m sure. They’ve been going slow there, and the athletes are aware of it.”
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Green, now based in Las Vegas, still has his finger on the pulse of a country where the collective blood pressure has seen better days, especially where race is concerned. The educator recently met with representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement and praised NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade for their passionate speech on race that opened the 2016 ESPYs.
“Certainly, LeBron and others were talking about violence within the black community,” Green said. “I think of athletes, particularly black athletes today, as a little bit more socially conscious in terms of activism today than during earlier eras. So yeah, there’s been some change.
“But in America, still, we like to talk about a level playing field, but there’s not a level coaching field. There’s not a level management field.”
Change — meaningful change, substantive change — takes time.
It takes a village.
It takes a push.
“Take Steph Curry,” Green said of the Golden State Warriors’ two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. “When does Steph say, ‘Don’t worry about shooting 3-pointers, get an ‘A’ grade-point or a ‘B’ grade-point?’ So that’s my concern. I think part of the responsibility rests with having appropriate leadership not just in the white community, but in the black community as well. We have to share that responsibility and be always taking ownership over that.”
Silence? Silence is always an option.
It’s just not necessarily the first. Or the best.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler