- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

So Terry Donahue and the brain trust of the 49ers recently discussed the following dilemma after gathering to hire a head coach:
You know, this defensive coordinator with the Jets, this Ted Cottrell, is probably the best person for the job. He has performed his job with distinction. He also was impressive in the interview process. He has a vision of where he wants to take the 49ers. He is very likable, too. We could do a lot worse than to hire him. It is just too bad he is black. Darn it. It is too bad we can't overlook his complexion. Otherwise, it would be simple. We could hire Cottrell and then start to prepare to be in the Super Bowl next season. But he is black, and that is that, so we will have to go in the direction of Dennis Erickson.
He probably won't lead us anywhere, except to the exit door after 16 games, but at least he is white, and we owe it to ourselves and to our wonderful fan base not to deviate from the standard operating procedure.
Johnnie Cochran would have you believe that this is the conversation that takes place whenever there is an opening for a head coach in the NFL, even though Cochran himself does not believe it.
If Cochran believes that, then he believes that O.J. Simpson remains in pursuit of the "real killers" of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
And Cochran is not that dumb to believe either contention. He is slick, is what he is, one of the poets in these strange times, addicted to the fashionable issues of the day that result in air time and a highly inflated sense of self-importance.
It is not unlike Martha Burk's inane fight with Augusta National. It is silly, even amusing, endeavoring to get one rich woman admitted into a private country club, but good for one's name recognition.
The media attention devoted to both undertakings is out of proportion to the benefits, which really are limited to a small number of individuals. Many members of the national media go along with it, because the 24/7 news cycle is an insatiable beast that demands to be fed. You have to adopt something to fill space, whether in print or on the air.
This space is hardly privy to the inner goings-on with the 49ers.
Yet the racist charge defies all manner of logic, especially in this day of exhaustive sports coverage that has increased the financial stakes for all parties. In the end, though, what does logic have to do with it?
You are encouraged by Cochran and others to believe that an organization, on an almost inadvertent level, somehow bases part of its decision on the complexion of the candidates.
That is the convenient aspect of the racist charge. You can be racist nowadays without even knowing it. You like vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate? You could be racist.
Racism is insidious like that, almost innocent in how it ensnares a person, which is fortunate enough for Cochran and his kind. By their tortured logic, the NFL is a potentially racist institution, which leads to an obvious out for a team.
In this ambulance-chasing climate, from a public relations standpoint, the easy thing for the 49ers would have been to hire Cottrell. They would have been hailed as forward-thinking, as the term is defined down in sports.
Instead, for better or worse, the 49ers chose Erickson, a person with previous head coaching experience in the NFL. Is he going to be the truth? Probably not. Few NFL coaches ever are.
This is the intellectually vapid political game around the NFL nowadays, which hardly jibes, for instance, with the reality of the NBA, if the NFL honchos are as scared of change as portrayed. They probably check out the NBA on occasion.
The NBA is a predominantly black league, and a favorite of this observer, in case you never could tell. Coaches come and go in the NBA, whether black, white or polka-dot, only to be recycled, led by Lenny Wilkens, who has won more games than anyone and soon will have lost more than anyone. You know what? The racial element has not slowed the NBA's tremendous growth in the last generation.
In fact, the NBA is going global, its popularity now extending to China with the arrival of Yao Ming. David Stern is trying to conquer the world. Forget the U.S. market. How myopic is that? Black or white? Please. Same thing. If Stern could pull it off, just to have a greater share of the global marketplace, he would add a pygmy to one of the NBA rosters. The problem with a pygmy basketball player is he would be unable to match up with anyone in the NBA, with the exception of Earl Boykins.
By focusing on the hiring procedures of the NFL, Cochran lends his celebrity to a trivial issue that obscures the real challenge before a race of people he purports to want to help.
Here's the deal: books, books, books. That is the ticket to upward mobility, and it can't be emphasized enough, however unappealing it is. Few Americans grow up to be defensive coordinators and head coaches in the 32-team NFL. But most Americans, the ones with a slight clue anyway, can grow up to be any number of things, even a yo-yo with a sports column. Feel this yo-yo's snow-induced back pain, by the way.
It seems Marvin Lewis, to name one upwardly mobile black coach in the NFL, has earned the thankless task of breaking the cycle of incompetence with the Bengals.
To which can be said: OK. Fine. Way to go. Wonderful. Good for him.
Are we supposed to feel complete now? Are we supposed to feel whole?
No? Same here. It is sort of like: Whatever.
You see, it is hard to embrace the so-called struggle of the rich and famous, considering theirs is a life beyond the imagination of us ordinary folks. The guy who loses his job and falls three months behind on his mortgage payments because of a corrupt CEO? We can embrace that. We can work up all kinds of outrage. Lewis? Nah.
If it was the fate of Lewis to be a lifetime assistant coach, which is the fate of many coaches in the NFL, black and white, incidentally, it is hardly an adversity-ridden fate if you study the fine print.
After all, Lewis made $1million with the Redskins last season. If that is the going rate for being oppressed in 2003, could someone show the rest of us where the line forms?
If it is about symbolism, it is a cheap, phony kind of symbolism, because the life of a professional coach or an athlete is a statistically negligible dream, almost impossible for most Americans to attain. Dream big, yes. Have dreams. Note the plural. That includes a backup dream, and again, remember to hit the books.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of ego gratification with this sort of thing. If Cochran, for whatever reason, decided that the D.C. public school system represented a big, fat waste of money and he put his celebrity behind it to implement change, he soon would have a problem attracting an audience.
The D.C. public school system is one of those arcane issues, hardly sexy, that flouts neat, easily understood solutions. You trot something like that out and soon the eyes of the audience are glazed over.
It is much easier to connect the dots with Erickson and Cottrell. Erickson is white, Cottrell is black, and the 49ers are possibly an institutionally racist organization.
No, the 49ers don't mean to be racist. They just are.
Why, some of Donahue's best players are black. See, right there. That is racist.
Cochran, God bless him, is bound to improve the thinking in the NFL one of these years.
Then what?
Who knows? This is the career that keeps on giving.
Why do the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black hats?
Hey. Settle down. Just asking. Now think about it. That piece of fashion could be racist.

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