One evening in the late 1960s, a few years into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career at UCLA, Kareem and Coach John Wooden had dinner together. Kareem was still wary of his white coach, as it was still early in their nearly 50-year relationship.
As they were leaving the diner, an elderly white woman—whom neither of the men knew—stopped and looked up at 7’2” Kareem, then said directly to Coach Wooden, “I’ve never seen a [N-word] that tall.”
Kareem, who was born and raised in New York, was nearly unsurprised by this insult and knew that a tall Black man reacting angrily to a small, old white woman would not look well for himself.
Coach Wooden was taken back and turned visibly angry—except he did not know how to respond to the situation, so he chose to do nothing. In Kareem’s book, Coach Wooden and Me, he shared that he believed Wooden must have been “having a crisis of conscience.” It was probably against his old Midwestern values to make a scene with an old lady in the front of a restaurant. But it was also against his coaching—as well as his Christian and American values—to not stand up for a player, for a young man, and against racism.
In the car ride back to campus, Kareem recalls how that moment clearly bothered his coach. Unsure of how to address it, Wooden seemed to fumble for the right words to say:
“‘Please don’t think all people are like that woman. Don’t let ignorant people prompt an ignorant response from you. I know it’s difficult, but let’s not condemn everyone for the actions of a few.’ […] ‘Sure, Coach,’ I said. I didn’t really want to talk about it. What was the point? There was nothing he could say that I hadn’t heard before, mostly from well-meaning white people.”
The incident at the diner that night made an impact on Coach Wooden. It opened his eyes to some of the many challenges and injustices that Black men face in America—a life he didn’t know or understand.
Not Good Enough
What should Coach Wooden have done in that moment? I’d like to say I would have stood up for my player, or anybody subjected to such blatant racism. But regretfully, I can’t, because I have had players experience racist remarks on the court, and my response was not much better.
I remember coaching a game back in 2016 when my team of predominantly Black athletes was playing one of the white “country” schools in our region. Anytime we traveled outside of the city and into the country to play games, you could feel the racial tension, whether it was a passing comment or a look from opposing coaches, players, or fans. I remember one game specifically, when my players came off the court and said one of the white players on the opposing team had called them a [N-word]. While our Black players’ response was courageous—they played on and kept their composure—my response was unacceptable. I addressed the referees, asking them to keep an eye on the player in question, and I encouraged my players to “beat them on the court.”
I regret not having a stronger response. I wish I had done something akin to my friend (and guest on Coaching Culture Podcast Episode 133), former Valpo Soccer Coach Mike Avery, who refused to play the second half of a game until the matter was addressed.
When we watch or see pictures of the George Floyd murder, we aren’t just disgusted and angry at Derek Chauvin, the cop responsible, but also by the other cops who stood by and did nothing. It has caused me to reflect and ask myself, “How often have I stood by and done nothing? How often have I, like John Wooden, chosen to stay silent?”
Like John Wooden, I was shocked that an opposing team would use hate speech in 2016. At the time, I thought my shock was the reason for my inaction. But it wasn’t just shock. I didn’t want to make a scene. And my excuse—like so many others—was that I treat people of color with respect. I do my part. I coach and teach Black athletes. I have Black friends.
But that’s not good enough. In light of recent events in America, I am now convicted that white people—more than anybody else—need to stand up and call out racism and prejudice when we see it.
I had a responsibility to stop the game and address the racial slurs that my players endured. Coach Wooden had a responsibility to address the insult directed at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When we see and hear hate speech, we must stand up, name it, and call it out for exactly what it is. Remember, evil thrives when good people do nothing! And too many of us have chosen to do nothing in moments that mattered.
A New Standard
“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Like many white people, I have been hesitant to say anything out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Well, if the greatest fear I have to live with is the fear that what I say may be taken the wrong way, then I am fortunate. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black man growing up in America, but as I listen to more and more stories, it’s clear to me that Black people live their whole lives in fear.
As a white American male, I will now set a new standard for how I will live and respond to prejudice, discrimination, and racism of any kind. Below are three ways I will take action in my life moving forward to take greater responsibility.
Three Ways I Will Fight Racism Moving Forward
1. Personal Reflection to Identify My Own Prejudices
Whether we realize it or not, we all are guilty of prejudice. Much of this comes from our own life experiences—the things we have seen and heard. I grew up in South Carolina, a state that flew the Confederate flag on its capital until 2000 and in a confederate memorial outside the capital building until 2015. When you live in a state where such blatant racism exists, you adopt certain beliefs (prejudices) without even realizing it.
Just because I grew up with Black friends and teammates does not mean those prejudices didn’t exist. The reality is these prejudices appear in small ways we aren’t even aware of, and we become tolerant of “small” racist comments or acts.
One of my encouragements to coaches is to ask your Black players, co-workers, and friends if there was ever a time when something you said or did made them feel uncomfortable or discriminated against. And then we need to really listen with an open mind—not ready to defend but ready to apologize make needed changes. One of the most powerful ways to grow is to build relationships with people in which honest feedback and discussion is respected—even when it is difficult to hear. These conversations won’t be easy, but they are crucial.
2. Call Out Prejudice and Racism When I See It
You may not experience racism like John Wooden did, or like I did back in 2016, but we all see it or hear it at some stage. Too often, we “just ignore” prejudiced and racist comments from a stranger, acquaintance, or even a family member. We often do so either to avoid making a scene or because we don’t feel it’s our place to correct them or call them out on it.
We might not need to make a scene. But we do need to call it out and name it for what it is. While my anger and temper may get the better of me at times, I am going to work to be intentional and call people up, to encourage others to be better, and to reflect on how those words or ideas are part of the problem.
In a recent group call with some Black coaches, one suggestion I kept hearing was the need to work on building trust with athletes. It’s in these moments when we can gain or lose their trust. Black Americans need to know we are in the fight with them, too.
3. Listen to Their Story
As coaches—especially white male coaches—we don’t understand. We have no idea what it is like to be Black or any other minority in America. Years ago, I sensed the tension and prejudice in those white country schools, but I never stopped to think or even ask my players how it made them feel. I missed out on an opportunity for me and other kids in our program to empathize and connect with the Black players in our program. They may not have ever been subjected to the violence that George Floyd was subjected to, but they have been the victims of racism.
Therefore, anytime we can, we should look for opportunities to create safe places for minorities to share their stories of prejudice and racism. We may be unsure how to initiate those conversations. On our recent coaches’ call, Mike Avery of CenterCircleIn.com suggested that we can start with something as small as, “I am not sure where to go with this…”. Once we’ve initiated the conversation, the most important thing we can do is listen. Therefore, it’s not about finding the right words to say; it’s about letting people know we are ready to listen.
We Need Transformational Leadership Now More than Ever
We can’t change others; we can only invite them to change. And the best way to do that is by becoming better people ourselves. We need to reflect on how we can do better and be better. This the heart of transformational leadership. Now more than ever, we need transformational leadership in sports, in our schools, and throughout the world.
Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem. Coach Wooden and Me (pp. 141-142). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.