- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

Air Force Academy coach Fisher DeBerry has apologized for voicing a need to recruit more black athletes to fill the speed positions of his football team.

This is not too far removed from a basketball coach expressing a desire to acquire taller athletes in the frontcourt.

Both prototypes on the sports wish list fall under the heading of, “Duh.”

Perhaps the objection to DeBerry emanates from the ideal to have a color-blind society, a hopelessly impossible goal because of the highly visual nature of humans. You might as well be pining for the day that Vogue magazine routinely splashes plus-size models on its covers.

If DeBerry is to be faulted, it is for stating the obvious. He should have spoken in code and left it at that. He should have said, “Our football team needs to get a whole lot faster.”

Now everyone would have known what he meant, because everywhere you look in the major college programs or in the NFL, the speed positions inevitably feature black athletes.

When Jason Sehorn was a cornerback with the Giants, he was a player of some distinction only because he happened to be the only white player at that position in the NFL. If he had been black, the casual NFL fan probably would not have known his name.

The dropping of race on the sports table remains tricky stuff in part because of the gotcha mentality that exists in the 24/7 media marketplace. There is this insatiable need to fill space, and there are only so many topics on a given day that rise to the level of worthy. A nugget of something or another sometimes has to suffice as water-cooler material.

Like Pavlov’s dog, members of the national press are conditioned to perk up at the mention of race, no matter how innocently it has been deployed, as in the case of DeBerry.

He said he could use more players of color at the speed positions?

So off with his coaching head.

It is funny how the discussion of race has evolved in sports. The late Shirley Povich built part of his national reputation with his prodding of Redskins owner George Preston Marshall to employ a player of color at any position until Bobby Mitchell arrived in Washington in 1962.

Now a coach is condemned for wanting to increase the number of players of color on his roster.

When Larry Bird said the NBA could use several white domestic stars from a marketing standpoint last season — a fairly benign observation that came with the support of Magic Johnson — tongues started wagging at a feverish pace.

Nothing against the Europeans who have descended on the NBA, but appealing to the diversity of America cuts lots of different ways.

Bird’s contention is no different from Major League Baseball officials being concerned with the game’s dwindling popularity among young African-Americans.

The Houston Astros amplified the concern, as the first World Series team since 1953 not to have an African-American on its roster.

No one is happier with the development of Yao Ming than NBA commissioner David Stern, if only because China’s 1.2 billion population is the mother of all markets.

In his chat with ESPN last season, Bird could have been speaking for DeBerry when he said, “The greatest athletes in the world are African-American.”

The evidence is persuasive, at least in the sports that Americans care about.

Football coaches often say, “We need to become more athletic.”

What does that usually mean?

That coaches are looking to stock their teams with white running backs, white wide receivers and white cornerbacks?

Given the fallout, DeBerry undoubtedly will limit his future public utterances to taking it one game at a time.

Of course, when coaches stick to their stock phrases, they are categorized as bland and boring, devoid of personality.

But at least you do not have to apologize for being bland and boring. Or wonder if you are going to keep your job.

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