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Billy Reed: We should all stand (or take a knee) against racism in sports and life — it needs to end


I was thrilled last week when several NBA teams boycotted their playoff games to show solidarity against racism. Black lives matter. The murders of innocent African-Americans by trigger-happy white cops must stop. That was the message, and they sure got plenty of media time to express their anger and demands for change.

I must admit that I thought, “Where have you been?” But I quickly stifled that. All that matters is that now they are using their star power to sway their adoring fans, especially the young ones. Other teams in other sports followed their lead. Finally, today’s players have rejected Michael Jordan’s lame reason for not getting involved in society’s problems: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

As I listened to eloquent spokespeople such as Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers and TV analyst Chris Webber (the center on Michigan’s “Fab Five” team of the early 1990s), I flashed back to important events regarding racial justice that I have experienced in my career.

As a youngster in the mid-1950s, I loved sports and rock n’ roll music. Among my favorites were Willie Mays, Fats Domino, Hank Aaron, Little Richard, Roberto Clemente, Chuck Berry, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

I never understood why the same white people who admired them as entertainers refused to allow them to eat at the same lunch counters they patronized. Even at my young age, that made no sense to me. And so was I introduced to racism.

When I became high school sports editor of the afternoon Lexington Leader in 1962, I put that same simplistic thinking into practice. I’ve been told I was the first white reporter who came to all-black Dunbar High and covered its games. I was not trying to make a statement. It was just that Dunbar had the best team in town, and I felt they deserved to be treated the same as the white teams, which still were all white.

I never met Jackie Robinson, but I became good friends with the two Kentuckians who helped him the most. The commissioner of baseball at that time was native Kentuckian A.B. “Happy” Chandler, a former Governor of the Commonwealth and U.S. Senator. The big-league owners had voted 15 to 1 against letting Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign Robinson to a contract. But Chandler over-ruled them, telling Rickey to go ahead with his plans.

After spending the 1946 season at Montreal, home of the Dodgers’ Class AAA affiliate, Robinson reported to the parent team in the spring of 1947. Many of his racist teammates shunned him, but Pee Wee Reese, the Kentuckian who was the team’s captain and shortstop, put an end to that. He told the team he expected them to treat Robinson like any other teammate. And they did, mainly due to the enormous respect they had for Reese.

The 1950s were pretty quiet for all the African-Americans who were filling the rosters for all the professional leagues except hockey. But in 1960, one of the stars of the Olympic games in Rome was Cassius M. Clay, Jr., a brash kid from Louisville who won the gold in the light heavyweight division.

After upsetting Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight championship in 1964, the fighter changed his name to Muhammad Ali and hooked up with the Black Muslims out of Chicago. They used him to spread their hateful propaganda, which angered White America. But when they murdered Malcolm X, Ali’s mentor and close friend, the fighter began to tone down his rhetoric. After Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad died, Ali quit the sect and reinvented himself as a man of peace and love.

I knew Ali and his immediate family. His mother, Odessa Grady Clay, would sometimes send me a note when I wrote something she liked about her son. One of the most interesting experiences of my life was spending several days with him at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa. I prayed with him in his private mosque. I jogged with him. I got to know his entourage. I also got to know and understand him.

In 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Louisville to give credence to the fight for open-housing laws. On the afternoon of May 3, I was at Churchill Downs for the Derby Trial that almost turned into a disaster. After the horses left the starting gate, a group of open-housing advocates dashed onto the track and laid their bodies across it.

As the horses pounded inexorably toward them, they didn’t budge. The jockeys, of course, didn’t know they were there. But at the last second, a bloodbath was avoided when the protestors jumped up and ran off the track. Everybody who was there left the track shaken and concerned about the Derby five days away. But the Rev. King called off the demonstrations and let Churchill Downs have its day.

Later in the year, Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army on the grounds he was a Muslim minister. That cost him four years of boxing when he was at his prime. I also was of draft age. When Ali said, “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Cong,” I thought that neither did I. Vietnam was an immoral war, pure and simple.

Late in 1968, working now for Sports Illustrated, I was in Mexico City for the Olympic Games. As fate would have it, I was in the track-and-field stadium when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had finished first and third in the 200-meter race, shook the world by bowing their heads and raising their black-gloved fists in the air to protest racism and the Vietnam War.

I hustled to the interview room, but the International Olympic Committee already had whisked Smith and Carlos away. IOC head Avery Brundage announced they would be disqualified from all amateur competition and ordered the U.S. Olympic Committee to kick them out of the Olympic Village.

When the USOC balked, Brundage threated to invalidate all their track-and field medals if it didn’t comply. Reluctantly, it did. But the photos of Smith and Carlos became iconic to people the world over. Television showed them again when the NBA teams staged their boycott.

In 1972, I was courtside in Minneapolis when the mother of all basketball brawls erupted near the end of Ohio State’s victory over Minnesota. Going into the game, Gophers’ coach Bill Musselman, whose team was mostly black, played the race card to get them his players stoked up. When it became apparent the Gophers weren’t going to win, a black Minnesota player named Corky Taylor kneed white Ohio State center Luke Witte in the grown while ostensibly pulling him up after a hard foul.

The players began punching each other, and some of the disappointed fans came out of the stands to join in. No policemen were in sight because they were outside getting ready to handle the post-game traffic.

It was the most afraid I’ve ever been at an athletic contest.

However, other college coaches were standing up for justice and fairness for their African-American players. I applauded Denny Crum of Louisville, who started five blacks in stark contrast to lily-white Kentucky down the road; C.M. Newton of Alabama, my mentor during my college days at Transylvania University in Lexington, who did more than anyone to integrate the Southeastern Conference; and Al McGuire of Marquette, who started his five best players, regardless of Kentucky, and became a leader in standing up for black athletes.

Each of these experiences made an indelible impression on me and helped shape my feelings about race. I bought into Dr. King’s dream that the day would come when men and women “would be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” Through sports, I met many African-Americans who enriched my life immeasurably.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when professional athletes began making exorbitant salaries, I became complacent. I figured that the fight against racism had mostly been won in the world of sports. One day I expressed this viewpoint over lunch with my friend Derrick Ramsey, a University of Kentucky graduate who was one of the first black quarterbacks in the SEC.

Derrick listened without comment. But when I was done, he said, “Bill, some improvements have been made. But racism in sports is far from dead. It has just gone underground, that’s all. It can bubble back up at any time.”

I remembered that when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. I remembered that when I read that Florida State’s first black head football coach, Western Kentucky University graduate Willie Taggert, has been exposed to internet images showing him being hung.

And, of course, I’ve remembered that every day since the Electoral College named Donald Trump President of the U.S. in 2016. When neo-Nazis and Ku Klux members attacked peaceful protestors at Charlottesville, Va., Trump said there were good people on both sides. That inspired the racists to come out in the open and start a new and violent campaign against people of color.

So I say hooray for the NBA boycotters for finally taking their heads out of the sand and confronting the ugly reality of racism. They represent Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and all the other sports activists who preceded them. We can only hope their movement grows and flourishes.


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