Sport as a vehicle for social change

Conclusion of a two-part column

Dr. Richard Lapchick’s wide, wide worldly circle of friends includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was named Lew Alcindor when they met as high schoolers at a summer basketball camp. A couple of decades later, Nelson Mandela personally invited him to his South African presidential inauguration.

“I was lucky to grow up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and later in the ‘70s [I] became good friends with Muhammad Ali until the time he passed. I have [as friends] perhaps two of the most prominent Muslims in the United States,” said The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport founder-director last month on the University of Minnesota’s campus.

Lapchick, U of M professors Mary Jo Kane and Doug Hartmann, and former school associate athletic director Leo Lewis were panelists at “Sport as a Catalyst for Racial Progress and Gender Equity” on April 16 at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Richard Lapchick
Richard Lapchick Charles Hallman/MSR News

“Sports is an enormous vehicle for social change,” stated Kane, the Tucker Center’s co-director.

“I think…looking at race and gender is still not focused enough,” Lewis pointed out. “I think it is critical and does reveal how we look at sport…”

“What we have now is athlete activism,” Lapchick added. “Athletes are now talking about things that are important to them, and I think that is going to add to the equation of pressure to bring about positive change in these areas.

“When I saw that Colin [Kaepernick] for the first time [protesting], I said to my wife that he will never get signed by another [NFL] team, that his career is over,” Lapchick recalled. Only a few athletes such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Ali have been able to take stand, withstand the critical firestorm, and remain popular figures afterward. Others who similarly took stands didn’t, he stressed.

Social media has become a boon for activism by athletes and others, Kane continued. “So many things have happened and people have been able to organize and go around the traditional gatekeepers of power because of social media,” she noted. “There are so many social issues that people have been able to resist and counteract because of the power, reach and scope of social media.”

Leo Lewis
Leo Lewis Charles Hallman/MSR News

Lewis warned, “Every time you see a resistance, there will be a fallback and counter-resistance. I’m concerned about that. Change doesn’t happen without some resistance.”

Before his scheduled panel appearance, Lapchick met with Minnesota AD Mark Coyle and his senior staff, a meeting set up by Hartmann. It was “an honest, upbeat conversation” on diversity hiring and inclusion, areas in which Lapchick’s annual report cards have found the U of M lacking, the professor reported. “I think it helped put that on the agenda,” Hartmann said of the meeting.

Coyle, in a phone interview, told us that the Lapchick meeting was “impressive. Literally everybody walked out of that room” afterwards impressed with his work, personal history and legacy, said the AD.

“This guy is doing it every day. It was a very positive meeting for us… We are grateful that Prof. Hartmann brought him over and spent time with us.”

This columnist and Lapchick first met in the 1990s at Macalester College when the late Kwame McDonald asked me to substitute for a no-show on a panel on race. It was humbling to sit with greatness between those two legendary social activists.

“I’m impressed that I know you,” Lapchick told me. But actually, it is the other way around.