Sports and Social Justice

Generally, I try not to beat people over the head with my views on societal issues but news of the passing of Marvin Miller yesterday made me stop and think about sports in the US and how sports relates to social justice in the US. Marvin Miller was a transformative figure in terms of US sports. As the leader of the MLBPA, he was a central figure in the entire “Curt Flood case” which abolished baseball’s reserve clause. Boiled down to a sentence, that may not seem like much for people who were not around to follow sports and baseball back in the 1960s; trust me, it is a very big deal.

The reserve clause in baseball – which was mirrored in most other US professional sports – legitimized one aspect of slavery. [Note that I said “one aspect of slavery”; I have no intention to make baseball’s reserve clause congruent with the institution of slavery.] What the reserve clause did was to bind a player to the team that “owned him” for as long as that team kept him on their roster. The player could not negotiate with another team in MLB; he could not move from city to city without being traded or released; he was in a “take-it-or-leave-it” situation with regard to playing major league baseball. If he wanted to play, he had to take whatever he could get from the team that “held his rights” at the time until that team sent those rights to some other team.

Marvin Miller and the MLBPA got rid of that oppression and ushered in the concept of negotiated free agency. A player can sign with a team who will “hold his rights” for a period of time as compensation for developing the player’s skills. At the end of that time, the player can sign on again with the same team on mutually agreeable terms or he can negotiate with the other 29 teams in MLB to get a deal that is more to his liking. Contract renewals became arms-length transactions not “take-it-or-leave-it” interactions.

To be sure, the new era of free agency had some repercussions that are less than wonderful such as the proliferation of work stoppages. Such stoppages are never to the liking of sports fans – witness the current NHL lockout – but they represent negotiations in a situation where there is power on both sides of the table. In a societal sense, that has to be a better than a one-sided discussion.

Last November, I wrote that it was a tragedy that Marvin Miller had not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for the long lasting effect that he had on the game. I continue to believe that Miller belongs there; and now that he has passed, his exclusion is an even bigger affront because he will not be present to receive the recognition he deserved.

Just about everyone who follows baseball would agree that Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were individuals who made hugely positive social contributions to baseball and to sports in the US. I maintain that Marvin Miller belongs with those men in any discussion regarding positive social contributions to sports.

Speaking of positive movements in sports toward equality and social justice and matters of that ilk, the firing of Jon Embree as the head football coach at Colorado brings to mind a negative image. There are 124 colleges playing Division 1-A football; now that Jon Embree is no longer at Colorado, my count is that there are only 11 colleges at that level with Black head coaches. I do not have data at hand to cite for this next statement, but when I watch college football and see the teams on the field and on the bench, my estimate is that 50% of the players are Black. I often note in these rants that I cannot read minds and that is certainly the case here, but one might think that such a high level of involvement in terms of players would lead to a similar level of involvement in terms of coaches, no?

Moreover, the history of Black head coaches in Division 1-A football has one other disturbing aspect. Black head coaches who lead teams that do not do well get fired – as they should – but those coaches do not seem to get a lot of “second chances”. In addition, in the unusual circumstance where they do get a second chance, they rarely get that second chance at a “bigger” or “better” program. In fact, I can only think of one such situation:

    In the 1980s, Dennis Green was the head coach at Northwestern at a time when Northwestern was not competitive in the Big 10. Green’s teams were a punching bag for about 5 years before he was fired with a 10-45 record.

    After a couple of years as an assistant in the NFL, Dennis Green was hired as the head coach at Stanford. Green’s second college head coaching job was – arguably – at a “bigger or better” football program than the one at which he had “failed”.

If you think about the concept of “failing up” for a moment, you might come across this comparison:

    Gene Chizik was 5-19 at Iowa State in the Big 12. For that performance, he got the head coaching job at Auburn in the SEC. That represents a stop up in terms of the conference and the football program. There ought not be much disagreement there.

    Jon Embree was 4-21 at Colorado in the PAC 12. Since his record was not as good as Chizik’s, he might not get such a plum job the next time around. Perhaps he might only “fail up” as high as Tennessee in the SEC? Anyone want to take bets on that happening…?

With regard to opportunities for Black football coaches, numbers and percentages only tell part of the story. Numbers and percentages are important only to a degree because people who are not of good will can manipulate them. It is just as important to see how minority coaches are treated when they succeed and when they fail relative to non-minority coaches who succeed and fail similarly. In 2012, the numbers do not look particularly good and the treatment of “failed” Black coaches seems to be far more severe than for others.

It was the news of Marvin Miller’s passing that got me thinking along these lines today.

Rest in peace, Marvin Miller.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

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  • Jim Granato  On November 28, 2012 at 11:11 am


    Amen on Miller. Amazing that the Reserve Clause could be seriously defended by anyone…but we are talking about self-interest and human beings…not always pretty.

    I think Jim Caldwell (who coached me in college…great guy and really helped me with technique, etc.) took a step up from Wake Forest after being fired (and with some lag time), but you are right…it sure appears to be an exception.

    It’s even bigger than race. There are the stories about Vince Lombardi being passed over for head coaching jobs — and here is an irony — at places like Wake Forest — due to his heritage…

    Race even figures in the Chizik hire. Wasn’t it Turner Gil, who created a winning program at U. of Buffalo, that Chizik was hired over?


    • The Sports Curmudgeon  On November 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm


      Jim Caldwell did go on to “bigger and better things” after Wake Forest – – but not in college. I believe he has been in the NFL since leaving Wake Forest.

      I recall Turner Gill “losing out” to Bo Pellini for the job at Nebraska after Gill’s success at Buffalo. I do not recall that he and Chizik were both in the running for the Auburn job – – but that statement comes purely from memory.

  • rugger9  On November 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Compare Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis. The former is on no one’s radar after success at Stanford and some success at ND. Weis is always in the discussion even though his record at ND was worse than Willingham’s if I remember correctly.

    Chizik to Auburn was a hire that never made sense to me, even allowing for the fact that ISU has been a doormat in the Big 8 and Big 12 8 years out of ten.

    Embree’s team at Colorado was indeed wretched, and I’m pretty sure that the fact Colorado was just joining the Pac-12 in these last two years did not help his chance of retention. Any team needs to be competitive in its new league immediate to gain the respect of its fellow members. Texas A&M certainly has it now in the SEC. Colorado was not, and no one wants a boat anchor dragging down the strength of schedule component of BCS / playoff consideration. Some more time in the NFL may help deserving candidates, it seems to be a favored place now for hiring.

    • The Sports Curmudgeon  On November 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm


      Willingham’s final tenure at Washington was SO BAD that it might take a few years for people to forget it and think back to his accomplishments at Stanford. But your point about Charlie Weis is spot on. He had success as the OC with the Patriots but has not distinguished himself as a head coach anywhere. When people talk about “today’s great collegiate football coaches”, they will have to talk for a long time before Charlie Weis’ name comes up.

      The NFL is ahead of the colleges in terms of hiring Black coaches and one factor is the “Rooney Rule”. That rule is not “the answer” and that rule standing by itself has no real hammer to hold over NFL teams; but what it does is to get young Black assistant coaches chances to sit down with owners/decision-makers and discuss what they think about the job of head football coach. It “puts their name in play” so to speak.

      Jon Embree would probably benefit from another tour in the NFL as a position coach or as an offensive coordinator.

  • Doug  On November 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    I agree with everything you say, but hasten to add that we still have the “reserve clause” in college sports. The NCAA does not allow a student athlete at Division I member colleges to transfer to another Division I member college except with permission from his coaches, and with restrictions at their discretion.

    For instance, if Cody Zeller decided at the end of this season he would rather attend Notre Dame than Indiana, and would still like to play basketball, the Hoosier coaches could simply say no. He could eventually transfer, but not on scholarship and he would have to sit out for one full season even if given permission.

    • The Sports Curmudgeon  On November 28, 2012 at 11:38 pm


      If Marvin Miller were 50 years old and NCAA athletes asked him to lead them as a union/trade association/whatever, the NCAA bigwigs in Indianapolis would be toast within a year.

  • Rich  On November 29, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Miller’s efforts enabled the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons and Sammy Sosa to collectively earn hundreds of millions of dollars as the biggest stars of Major League Baseball. What the odds of a trifecta in which these three recently eligible National Baseball Hall of Fame nominees gaining entrance?

    • The Sports Curmudgeon  On November 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm


      What is the timeframe for your proposition bet?

      If you mean “entrance to HoF for all three this year” I would put the odds at 100,000 – 1.

      If you mean “ever admitted to the HoF” I think the odds get a lot shorter because once “forgiveness” for the steroid era sets in, Bonds and Clemens will be shoo-ins and Sosa will eventually get in.

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