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Blacks In Sports: The Hall Pass

Inspired by Sports Illustrated's 1991 update of its groundbreaking "The Black Athlete" report in 1968, I wrote my own three-part series called "Blacks In Sports" for my college newspaper at the University of Cincinnati's The News Record. Now, nearly 20 years later, I've updated my own report, this time in five segments, and I hope you enjoy it. Everyone quoted in this series is black unless noted. Today's Part II is "The Hall Pass."

Logo: Blacks In Sports

One Great Season

It was hardly unusual for O.J. McDuffie to spend an entire weekend at the home of a white high school buddy whose parents welcomed him with warm, open arms.

McDuffie was a four-sport superstar at Hawken School in Cleveland, which is why, in looking back on those times in the mid- to late-1980s, he thought he got a little extra consideration from his friend's family. A pass.

"If I was just the average black kid from homeroom, I don't know if it would have been that way," said McDuffie, who was the farthest thing from average. While at Hawken, he starred in football, baseball and basketball, and was a state-champion sprinter in track. He would go on to star at Penn State and play eight NFL seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

"Black athletes are treated a lot differently than black people are. People were very welcoming to me because I played sports. As athletes, we've had it a lot easier than the average black kid who walks the streets of America."

Bomani Jones agrees. The Sirius Radio host of "The Morning Jones" and frequent ESPN panelist said he thinks regular folks just want to be cool with jocks, and that sports is an area where they're more likely to think and behave with an open mind.

Picture Of Bomani Jones

"People like the idea of having athletes being friendly to them," Jones said. "We see that come out in all kinds of different ways. We saw that with the Marcus Dupree documentary on ESPN. Everybody in Philadephia, Miss., loved Marcus Dupree because he was a great football player."

The explosive growth in the popularity of American sports has led to the obvious growth in the popularity of those who play them. It's anyone's guess which came first, but because of the importance our culture now places on football and basketball games, its stars — even rank-and-file guys — are revered like those in no other industry. Athletes are not as popular as rock stars. They are rock stars.

And many of them are black rock stars.

As a result, the fan who still finds the need to judge a man by the color of his skin might forget his own bigoted tendencies so long as his favorite team's top player has a big game on Sunday or hits the game-winning shot to beat the Celtics. He may not slap five with his black neighbor, but he'd love to have McDuffie over dinner.

"I call it the 'Entertainer Effect,'" said Anthony Buford, a key starter on the University of Cincinnati's 1992 Final Four team who now is a television analyst for the Bearcats. "When you're an athlete, especially if you're in that superstar realm, you really don't experience racism. People love you and adore you because of what you can do on the playing field."

Solomon Wilcots, who enjoyed athletic success in Cincinnati as well, said while the hall pass existed in his playing days, it wasn't something he thought he earned despite being black.

"If you played for the Reds or the Bengals, and you played well, you got some sort of a pass," said Wilcots, now a football analyst for CBS and the NFL Network. He played six seasons in the NFL, including four with the Bengals.

A few years after he left Cincinnati, the Bengals selected Dan Wilkinson with the No. 1 pick in the 1994 draft. After four less-than-memorable seasons with the team, he called Cincinnati a "racist" town, and a short time later he was traded.

Fans may have been a little rough on Wilkinson, but that's what happens when you don't deliver after being a top draft pick. And when your team goes 25-39 during your tenure. And when you're charged with striking your pregnant girlfriend, as Wilkinson did in 1995.

Picture Of Solomon Wilcots

"I remember Dan Wilkinson said some things about Cincinnati that I didn't necessarily agree with, but his experience was a lot different than mine," Wilcots said. "We won, we went to a Super Bowl and we developed a love affair with the community."

Wilcots added that despite being among the most conservative of American cities, Cincinnati embraced its black athletes.

"If you might look different or act different or you have different views, despite being kind of conservative, the populace there will still like you," said Wilcots, who still makes his home in Cincinnati. "It is a very difficult thing to explain. But it's worked out and I'm grateful for that."

At least a partial pass was once available to Charlie Coles. The Miami University men's basketball coach said that during his teenage years in Springfield, Ohio, he could get a smile or even a hug from his basketball coach. But "hanging out in white society" was a no-no, he told OGS in a recent telephone interview. It shouldn't surprise you that Coles is 69 years old.

As sports have changed, access and coverage have evolved as well. So while you might think a black athlete has it far better than he would have 20 or 30 years ago, the very popularization of what he does so well can also be a detriment. See: Tiger Woods.

"(Black athletes) get (the pass) on the front side because people are too busy clapping and applauding their tremendous achievements and contributions as athletes," said Dr. Harry Edwards, the noted sociologist, professor and author. "But the first time they slip, they get all of that and then some on the back end. I mean, do you think a black actor would get the same kind of pass that a Charlie Sheen gets? It's the same thing in sports. It just doesn't happen."

ESPN personality Jemele Hill said the pass is part of an art-imitates-life scenario in a popular Spike Lee movie.

"In 'Do The Right Thing,' the guys who owned the pizza shop had pictures of many black heroes on their walls," she said. "But in dealing with every-day black customers who came into their restaurant, they looked down their noses at them and didn't treat them very well."

That Entertainer Effect is short-lived. You don't even have to slip, as Edwards said. In Buford's case, he'd just used up all his NCAA eligibility. One day he's playing on college basketball's grandest stage, the next, he's finishing school, getting ready to start his life.

"When I was playing at Cincinnati and we were making that Final Four run, people loved us," he recalled. "But once that's all over, you're now working in their world, and you're not the entertainer anymore. You're just a regular guy trying to make a living, then you start to see what all your friends had been experiencing the whole time. You start to see the glass ceilings and other things that don't make sense to you. There are things that start to appear. And because you were shielded from them for so long, it's a big shock. You can't imagine being treated that way because you were once the star player."

Check back Wednesday for Part III: "The Summer Of LeBron."

And if you missed Monday's Part I, "Remembering The History," click here.

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