Charlie Strong, ‘Hip-Hop Coach': How The Sports Media Struggles With Race

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"Charlie Strong, ‘Hip-Hop Coach': How The Sports Media Struggles With Race"

Charlie Strong

CREDIT: AP

The University of Texas on Sunday made Charlie Strong the first black head football coach in program history, a significant marker not lessened by the fact that the Longhorns’ biggest rival, Texas A&M, made Kevin Sumlin its first black head coach two years ago.

Yes, each of the two biggest football programs in Texas, and ergo two of the biggest in the nation, are now coached by black men. If the significance of that doesn’t resonate immediately, remember that this is a business that in 2013 had just 13 black head coaches at the 125 schools that make up college football’s biggest division.

If Sumlin’s hiring and the relative success the Aggies have found since — a win over Alabama, two bowl victories, 20 total wins, and a Heisman Trophy — should have given the media a trial run in how not to talk about black coaches for when the big school in Austin made the leap, it didn’t. The day of the hire, the Dallas Morning News tweeted its informational slideshow about Strong by saying, “Why he’s not a hip-hop coach; 10 things you might not know about new Texas Longhorns coach Charlie Strong.”

The Morning News answered criticism by saying it was merely quoting ESPN analyst Lou Holtz, who hired Strong as an assistant at both Notre Dame and South Carolina. “The thing that impressed me most was his attitude … his people skills and his ability to communicate,” Holtz told the (Louisville) Courier-Journal when Louisville hired Strong in 2010. “I found as we went along that his greatest asset was common sense. He’s great with players … but he’s not a hip-hop coach. He really, truly could have coached for (Ohio State’s old-school taskmaster) Woody Hayes with no problem whatsoever.”

What’s a hip-hop coach? I don’t know. But examine Holtz’s context clues or glance through the Morning News’ slideshow and it’s plenty easy to figure out why they think Strong isn’t one: he’s black, sure, but he’s also educated, a disciplinarian, a guy who graduates his players, and, oh yeah, he’s married to a white woman. The Morning News made the last point by noting Strong’s documented belief that his interracial marriage had cost him at least one head coaching job. It’s there almost as a self-congratulatory note to Texans: we may have an ugly racial past down here, but at least we aren’t the school that let a mixed marriage get in the way of winning football games.

Defining “hip-hop coach,” though, doesn’t matter as much as the presence of the moniker. I don’t know what kind of music Strong listens to. I do know he’s a hell of a football coach, a guy who won more games in a two-season span than any Louisville coach before him. He built the Cards’ defense into the second-stingiest group in the country and wreaked havoc on the recruiting trail, most notably by convincing Miami native Teddy Bridgewater to come to, of all places, Louisville, where the quarterback helped Strong rebuild a program that had been struggling.

Would any of that change if Strong walked, talked, or dressed a little more “black”? Would it be different if it was Tribe, Biggie, or Eric B. and Rakim blaring from his headphones? If Strong were “black” the way Holtz and the Morning News seem to define it, would he be less of a coach? Less equipped to win football games? Less employable than definitively not-hip-hop coaches like, say, Bobby Petrino? Would he be, dare I ask, less of a man who could positively influence the lives and careers of his players?

We’ll revisit that in a minute, but first we should mention another slip up in the sports media. Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles were eliminated from the NFL playoffs, an outcome that all but guarantees the end of quarterback Mike Vick’s time in green and black.

Vick still thinks he can start and win at quarterback in this league. There are reasons to be skeptical of that — his health, his age, and his durability all suggest that maybe he can’t — but in parsing the end of Vick’s time in Philly, New York Times columnist Juliet Macur instead chose to focus on the time Vick spent in federal prison for dogfighting.

Vick, Macur wrote, is a “quarterback known as much for his rap sheet as his athletic skill” mostly because he spent two years in prison for leading and bankrolling a dog fighting ring. Macur spent the next thousand or so words arguing that Vick’s “dark past” should cloud his future, that teams “should be required to look past his strong left arm, his nimble feet, and his potentially cost-effective upside.” They should focus instead on the dogfighting.

Macur gets around to noting that Vick has more than paid his penance — not only did he serve two years in prison, he’s worked with the Humane Society since coming to Philly and has pushed to strengthen anti-dog fighting laws — but she treats it with a dismissive tone that makes it clear there’s little Vick could do to get back in her favor.

Give Macur the benefit of the doubt and say that her position stems not from a racial perspective but from one sympathetic to canines, and it’s still hard to imagine reading a column similarly indicting of a white quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, whose own “dark past” includes multiple sexual assault allegations, a settlement with one of his accusers, and an NFL suspension. Should teams be required to consider his past too? Or is that only applicable to Vick?

Challenge the Macurs, the Holtzes, and the Dallas Morning Newses of the world, and they’ll surely argue that their words and positions aren’t dictated by the race of their subjects. And consciously, perhaps they aren’t. But that’s precisely the point, because the sports media still has a problem with subconscious bias — and yes, racism — when it comes to judging black coaches and athletes. These writers can call Charlie Strong accomplished, talented, and professional, but only because he fits their idea of what accomplished, talented, and professional means. They hesitate to embrace Vick’s story as one of redemption, because Mike Vick doesn’t look like someone who’s redeemed himself. If Charlie Strong looked or acted the way they think “hip-hop” people do, he probably wouldn’t be coaching at Texas, because he probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to climb the ladder the way he did (it took him longer than it does most white coaches anyway). If Mike Vick were white, he almost certainly wouldn’t have to argue with an already skeptical national columnist about whether he deserves a second chance.

And those problems don’t just affect Charlie Strong and Mike Vick. For some reason, the default assumption is that black coaches and players, until they prove otherwise, are part of a nebulous but menacing “hip-hop culture” that’s infecting Beaver Cleaver’s White America with all sorts of problems that otherwise wouldn’t exist. There’s a clear line between these attitudes and the fact that there were only 13 black head coaches in major college football this year (though the number is improving). The story isn’t much different in the professional head coaching ranks, and black executives remain rare. The black franchise owner, Michael Jordan excepted, is essentially a myth. White men make up 89 percent of presidents and chancellors at Football Bowl Subdivision schools; they make up 85 percent of athletics directors. And outside of sports, black men (and women) are still largely absent from board rooms and executive offices (in 2012, there were six black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies). There’s no room for “hip-hop culture” in these places, and black men have to overcome that to ascend to the highest jobs.

The same idea is present in the suggestion that there’s no amount of penance that would redeem Michael Vick. The color of his skin, and the idea that he’s a thug, renders him permanently suspect. And while that hasn’t actually cost Vick a second chance, it strips plenty of other young minority men of theirs. That idea that there should exist no second chance for young people who make mistakes only perpetuates the failed, over-incarcerated justice system we have in place, one that features high recidivism rates especially for minority communities because once they have a record, they have little or no chance at redemption. The tragedy isn’t that Mike Vick got a second shot. It’s that it takes absurd athletic skill to get one.

All of that is to say that in a sports world where the most overt racism has mostly disappeared, the sports media still isn’t all that good at talking about or examining race with any sort of nuance. I’m using Strong and Vick to make that point — and they may be obvious examples — but it could be made also by looking at how segments of the media judged Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos or the portrayals of athletes like Dez Bryant and Cam Newton. The black men who do earn broader acceptance of the white sports media — that is to say, the sports media — often fit a mold white America desires. “He’s well spoken,” they’ll write, adding that he’s a good role model for the kids because he’s never found trouble with the law, his coaches, or management.

Maybe that’s because the majority of us writing about sports are white. Maybe it’s because people like Strong and Vick, head coach and quarterback, are in positions that have long been dominated almost solely by white men. Whatever it is, it’s worth stepping back and remembering that those biases — sometimes conscious, sometimes sub — are always there. It’s easy to think of sports as being just a little more progressive in how it views race than other parts of society because the majority of players are black. But look at Strong and Vick and it’s easy to see that the sports media still views race and the accompanying issues through a lens white America created, prefers, and finds comfortable.

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