‘Racial conscience of sport’ reflects on his activism

Origins of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport

First of a two-part column

For virtually his entire life, Dr. Richard Lapchick has been fighting for social change. He has the battle scars to prove it.

While working late in his office in February 1978, after a successful effort in leading a boycott campaign against the South African tennis team in the Davis Cup and other international events because of its then apartheid policies, Lapchick was feeling good about his efforts. “I had done something worthwhile.

“I was working late in my office in the school library. There was a knock on the door at 10:45 in the night. I didn’t hesitate opening the door” since school security would often check on him while doing their rounds. “Instead of the campus police, it was two men wearing stocking masks who proceeded to cause me [harm].”

As a result of the assault, Lapchick suffered liver damage and a concussion. The attackers also left another calling card: “[They] carved the N-word in my stomach with a pair of scissors,” he said.

“I knew that night that if people go to the lengths that they did to stop my dad 28 years before, they would try to stop me at this point,” said Lapchick. His father is Hall of Famer Joe Lapchick, who was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1966.

“The power of sport is real. I decided to spend the rest of my life in sport” and use it to further the cause of social justice, gender equity and other issues.

Richard Lapchick
Dr. Richard Lapchick Charles Hallman/MSR News

Also that night he got another encouraging affirmation: “I heard women talking in the corridor and they assumed I was asleep,” he noted. “They came in one by one and kissed my hand.

“I realized that they were African American nurses, and they went back out in the corridor. One said to the other, ‘I didn’t think White people cared,’” Lapchick remembered.

“There are a lot of White people who care,” he said. “I was placed in the historical set of circumstances that shown the international spotlight on me for a time. But I have a lot of friends who felt the same way that I did, and who look just like me.”

Lapchick’s “immersion in sport” came naturally, so to speak. He first saw as a five-year-old how some people can’t fathom change and act out their resistance when his father Joe Lapchick, as coach of the New York Knicks, signed the NBA’s first Black player in 1950.

“I looked outside my bedroom window and saw my father’s image swinging from a tree, with people under the tree picketing. There were a lot of people unhappy that an African American [Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton] was coming into the league.

“I had no idea what it meant,” said the younger Lapchick. “All I knew was that there was something wrong in the world.”

Later, as a teenager, he visited Nazi prison camps in Germany and saw how sport can impact the world socially and racially during the 1960 Summer Olympics Games. Then, after earning his Ph.D. in international relations, Lapchick earnestly began his social justice activism work in the 1970s.

He founded the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in 1984, co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention in 1993, and started the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (now the Institute for Sport and Social Justice) in 1994.

Renowned nationally and internationally as “the racial conscience of sport,” Lapchick, the founder-director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, surmised, “I didn’t think I would be involved in the world of sport. You can see the issue of race and sport is both profound and personal.”

Next: Richard Lapchick recently brought his message to the Twin Cities.

One Comment on “‘Racial conscience of sport’ reflects on his activism”

  1. The shift of tide in sports as a catalyst for social change has long ebbed and flowed. Dr. Richard Lapchick has helped permanently change the landscape, creating a thoroughfare for deep, civil conversations regarding the power of sport to shape the heart of humanity. Thank you for sharing his story, Charles.

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