We’ve seen the intersection of sports and politics this year, most notably with the national anthem protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick. One of the frequent criticisms was that it wasn’t the right place/method for voicing protest, and that it did not show the proper action.
Just over 20 years ago, another football player used the occasion of his induction into the Hall of Fame in Canton to voice his views on social issues. Kellen Winslow was a star tight end for the “Air Coryell” Chargers and was inducted in 1995. He used his speech to voice his displeasure with attacks on affirmative action, and challenged African-American athletes to use the leverage they had in sports to drive for change.
From Michael Wilbon, Washington Post:
Thankfully, there seems to be a bit of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Kellen Winslow. Probably, your local (and cable) stations didn’t give you much in the way of highlights from Winslow’s speech. Too intelligent, too substantive. Didn’t deal enough with blocking and tackling. Made too many people too uncomfortable. Winslow, since you might have missed it, took on a Supreme Court justice and the Speaker of the House (who happened to be in attendance) in Canton, Ohio, Saturday morning. He challenged opponents of affirmative action and the most famous members of black America to open their mouths and roll up their sleeves.
From Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
If you want to be a politician, do what Steve Largent did – get elected to office and establish the proper forum. A hall of fame induction isn’t one.
From Will McDonough, Boston Globe:
Don’t invite Hall of Famers Steve Largent and Kellen Winslow to the same party. Largent, currently a rookie Congressman representing Oklahoma, was upset that Winslow chose the recent Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, to give an affirmative action speech. Sitting right in front of Winslow was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a guest of Largent’s. Gingrich took the slap in the face in stride, but Largent – although he said nothing publicly – told friends later that Winslow was out of line. According to people who were there, no member of the Chargers’ organization, and no former teammates, showed up to see Winslow inducted. Maybe they heard about the content of his speech, which went on for more than double the time allotted.
I can’t find a preserved video online, but here is the portion of his speech transcript where Winslow addressed racial issues in regard to affirmative action and challenged fellow athletes. (via the pro football hall of fame website). It’s striking how much of what he had to say can seem as if it is ripped from 2016.
Being inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame not only provides a place for football immortality. It also provides a platform to address issues related to the areas of sports. At this time I would like to address such an issue. The issue of affirmative action is once again a major topic in our country. Affirmative action has been attacked from all fronts and from within by from those who have decided that it is no longer necessary or an effective tool to address long standing discrimination. These individuals would have you believe that society’s playing fields are now level, and that we have reached Dr. King’s dream of being judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. They would have you believe that over 300 years of De Jeur and De Facto racial preference in one direction had been now remedied by less than 30 years of unenforced policies in the other.
The politicians have targeted affirmative action as the political ball for this upcoming national election. And have scrambled to justify their positions to appease this country’s extreme move to the right. The political backlash in Washington is more of a political back draft consuming any and everything in its path. Standing in the path of this political back draft, as always, are the poor, the downtrodden, the politically powerless, minorities and children of this country. They have chosen to paint affirmative action with a brush of mediocrity. That anyone that has come through an affirmative action program is in some manner inferior to the non-minority counterparts. The numbers fail to justify this most recent and long-standing cry that unqualified minorities are taking away substantial educational and job opportunities from qualified non-minorities. They have chosen to focus on the negatives, driving the point to exhaustion, but have failed to touch on the successes.
In recent court decisions, some members of the Supreme Court especially one who should know better, has decided that this so-called living and breathing document that started this country should now be interpreted in a strict fashion. There by barring the federal and state government from doing, if Spike Lee will forgive me, the right thing. Need one be reminded how this so-called living and breathing document that our courts now choose to read literally, initially dealt with a class of citizens now referred to as African Americans. Need one be reminded of the law that said on the books not so long ago that regulated a raise to second or third-class citizenship simply because of the color of their skin. Nor need one be reminded that our national defense was not too long ago, predicated on keeping our forces, our fighting troops categorized based on skin color.
These are facts that we simply can not ignore. They are much a part of our history as the victory over the British and can not be cast aside. But now, after less than thirty years of a policy that has the proper goal of attempting to induce those that have been excluded for so long. The powers to be have declared it no longer necessary. To these people I say take off your robes, leave your ivory towers and congressional halls and walk the streets of America today. Look into the eyes of the members of the various minorities, Native Americans, African Americans, Women, Hispanics, Asians, and so on and tell them that in spite of the odds before them, odds they know all too well, that they can overcome these odds because now the playing field is level. We have come a long way as a society in addressing the issue of equal rights and opportunities for all and of those accomplishments we should be proud. But we must also deal with the reality that we have a very, very long way to go.
I, therefore, call on the President of these United States to continue his support of affirmative action programs in a fashion that will continue to provide opportunities for minorities in both the private and public sector. That even if the program must change significantly to fit the restrictive guidelines set by the Supreme Court that that program be given the funding and the power to enforce those guidelines. In the long run, history will reward you, Mr. President, for taking the tough stance, for standing for what is right and for what is just.
As an African American I can think of only one particular industry in this country where we posses the economic and political clout that provides a level playing field of competition, thereby making affirmative action a non-necessity. That industry of course is sports. One need only turn on their television to see any given night be it professional or college, football or basketball, to see the numerical presence of the African American athlete. Think back, Orlando versus Houston in the NBA finals, Dallas versus San Francisco in a NFC title game and Arkansas versus UCLA in the final four championship game.
Nonetheless our significant numerical presence on the field has not translated into a significant measurable presence in positions of authority off the field of play. The coaching staffs, head coaches, front office, league office, support staff, administrative positions, television crews on and off camera, television executives, newspapers, reporters, sports agents, and other related professions fail at various degrees to reflect the numerical presence on the field. And while I acknowledge that significant progress has been made over recent years, there is clearly room for improvement.
I am reminded of my impressions at this year’s Super Bowl. On the field, one could easily count the racial make-up of the teams. It was there for all to see. But behind the scenes where the real money is, at a tailgate gathering made up of members of network executives, advertisers, sponsors, sales, marketing, broadcasters and so on, I was hard pressed to find members of the African American community in these positions of power and influence.
How does the African American athlete bring about some of the necessary changes in sports? Consider the two following scenarios. Number one: a top college football prospect who happens to be an African American sitting in his living room with his parents and a coach from State University. After a weekend visit from good old State U. the conversation goes something like this. Coach: “Son, we really would like to have you play. We have a fine academic program and a winning tradition. And it’s close to home so your folks can see you play a lot.” Player to coach: “Coach, that sounds great and I had a wonderful trip to campus, but it bothers me that there are only two African American coaches on your staff, one on offense and one on defense. And neither one of them is offensive or defensive coordinator. It bothers me that there is only one assistant athletic director in a rather large department. And there are very few African American members on the faculty of good old State U.” Scenario number two: A top NFL free agent who happens again to be African American, shopping his services to several NFL teams. He applied the following criteria of the amount of money offered, the possibility of that team making the playoffs and the number of African Americans in positions of authority on that coaching staff, in that front office, and in ownership.
Knowing what we know about business-and sports on all levels it is a major business. Would not these types of statements by African Americans, athletes have a profound affect on the hiring practices of professional teams and universities. With these few words, African American athletes can begin to open doors of opportunities that for whatever reason once closed to African Americans.
Some might ask why such a movement is important for African Americans and society as a whole? The answer is simple. For years we have been told to help our own. To rally our political forces and clout and work within the system to bring about change for our people like so many other ethnic groups have been able to do. For African Americans many social advances can be directly related to advancements in sports.
It has also been said that sports is a microcosm of society, a mirror, reflecting the issues of a larger society. If so, maybe the progress made in sports can serve as a model for society. Therefore, due to our representation on the field of play this seems the most logical place to begin.
The past, present, and future African American athlete must come together with well-defined goals and methods for bringing about change in sports. While the African American athlete of yesteryear can speak of their experiences and realities of life after professional sports, the African American athlete of tomorrow can learn from those experiences and turn and face those realities. However, it is the African American athlete of today who must be the driving force, for they are the ones with the platform and the ability to bring about change. In other words, tomorrow Kellen Winslow may no longer have a platform for which you address these issues. But a Michael Jordan, an Emmitt Smith, a Shaquille O’Neal will have such a platform for some time to come.
We have been challenged time and time again by members of public and private sector both black and white to do something for our own, to stop being a burden on society, seeking handouts and special privileges. Today, I encourage the African American athlete to awaken and join me in accepting that challenge, to awaken and our rightful role in society as leaders. To awaken and accept the responsibility that comes with fame and fortune. To awaken to the realities of the uncertain plight of the African American condition even as we approach the twenty-first century.
It is now with a great deal of humility and with the full appreciation for what the game has given to me. I am pleased to take my place among the greats of the National Football League. To God be the glory.