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………