Last week, Charles Barkley accused Auburn University of race discrimination after the school hired Gene Chizik as its next football coach over Turner Gill. “I think race was the No. 1 factor,” complained Barkley. “[Y]ou can’t compare the two résumés and say that Chizik deserved the job.” Chizik—a white man who helped lead Auburn to a 13-0 record in 2004 as the school’s defensive coordinator—had a 5-19 record in his two seasons as a head coach at Iowa State. By contrast, Gill—an African-American—turned around the University of Buffalo, one of the nation’s weakest football programs, and guided the team to a Mid-American Conference championship. Not surprisingly, the school denies that race was a factor in the hiring: Auburn’s athletic director, Jay Jacobs, insists that Chizik was simply the “best fit” for the school. So, who’s bluffing: Is Jacobs heading up an apartheid athletic program, or is Barkley just playing the race card?
Accusations of bias are so vexing because it’s often impossible to tell whether they have merit. Unless an athletic director gets drunk at a tailgate party and owns up to a “whites only” policy, we’ll never have an open-and-shut case. It’s hard to prove that a specific hiring decision was made on the basis of race, especially in a job as specialized and rarefied as head coach of a major college football team. As evidence of racism, Auburn’s critics point out that Gill’s won-loss record was better than Chizik’s. But a coach has to do more than win games: He also has to schmooze the boosters and alumni who contribute money to the college. One might even say that, from the perspective of the university, winning is a means to the end of successful fundraising. A coach who can rake in the contributions might be a “better fit” than a coach who wins more often but can’t charm the alumni.
But couldn’t fundraising success be related to race? It’s not hard to imagine a good ol’ boy booster network that responds more generously to a white coach than a black one. If the school’s hiring decisions are driven by the racial preferences of their donors, that’s still race discrimination. In the early days of civil rights law, some businesses tried to defend themselves from charges of discrimination by arguing that they were simply responding to their customers’ racial preferences by refusing to hire blacks—they claimed that racist whites wouldn’t buy from black salesmen or eat food served by black waiters. Courts quickly and correctly rejected this alibi. Almost every employer in a racially prejudiced society would be able to blame his discrimination on his customers; such an exception would easily swallow the rule against race discrimination. So maybe the real problem isn’t a specific racist hiring decision but rather a soft, pervasive bigotry among the boosters and alumni who ultimately run the show.
It’s not just Auburn that seems to have a Jim Crow-era hiring policy for coaches—it’s a problem across college football. While only six of 119 coaches (5 percent) in the NCAA’s top division are black, 28.5 percent of coaches in major college basketball are black, and almost one-quarter of NFL coaches are black. It’s also worth noting that only one of college football’s six black coaches, Miami’s Randy Shannon, represents a major-conference school; the rest are employed by universities where football is not a huge moneymaker.
Perhaps the numbers we’re seeing in college football have to do with the economic model of the good ol’ boy booster club. College basketball, while a big deal for the top schools, isn’t the money magnet that football is. And in pro football, profit is tied to advertising, network ratings, and therefore performance, so irrational bias is punished not only on the field but also in terms of cash flow. In a similar vein, economic historians have argued that racial discrimination in professional baseball was finally eliminated, not by litigation or the civil rights movement, but by television. Television raised the monetary rewards of fielding a winning team by opening baseball to national markets and national advertising—this made it too costly for owners to indulge their own racism and the racism of established players and local fans.
College football’s critics are particularly incensed about the fact that while there are only six black coaches in major college football, 50 percent of the athletes are black. In fact, the Black Coaches and Administrators has opened a national hotline offering legal advice to disappointed black applicants for NCAA coaching positions; for the BCA, the next step could be helping one of those applicants file a race discrimination lawsuit. (In the week since the BCA announced the hotline, two black coaches have been hired—Ron English at Eastern Michigan and Mike Haywood at Miami of Ohio.)
But the disparity between black coaches and black athletes doesn’t prove discrimination. Coaches aren’t hired from the pool of football players—many, indeed most, athletes aren’t qualified for or aren’t interested in coaching. In an early case involving statistical evidence of discrimination, the Supreme Court confronted a similar issue: A school district accused of discriminatory hiring tried to defend its very small percentage of black teachers by pointing out that the percentage of black students in the district was equally miniscule. But the court rejected this comparison as irrelevant: Teachers aren’t drawn from the same pool as students. The correct comparison was between the percentage of black teachers in the school district and the percentage of black qualified and interested potential teachers in the local labor market.
Similarly, to smoke out possible discrimination, we’d need to compare the percentage of black coaches with the percentage of blacks among qualified and interested potential coaches. We can get some idea about this pool by looking at the coordinators and assistant coaches at Football Bowl Division schools. One recent survey showed that 12.2 percent of coordinators were black and 30.6 percent of assistant coaches were black. So the disparity between coordinators or assistant coaches and head coaches is not as stark as between coaches and athletes, but it’s still significant. Of course, the head coach position is far more important for fundraising. Maybe the black coordinators and assistant coaches can make the right moves on the field but aren’t learning to make the right moves with the boosters. If that’s the case, and if blacks aren’t being mentored, nurtured, and prepared to take the helm when they’re working in entry-level assistant positions, then the problem isn’t really the hiring decisions for head coaching positions—it’s much more diffuse, and much harder to zero in on.
Even if it’s not proof of racial discrimination, the disparity between the percentage of black athletes and of black coaches is relevant, at least symbolically. A sport that’s dominated by white coaches and black athletes—white overseers giving orders to young black bucks who do the physical work—can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a plantation. (And, fair or not, this resemblance is just a tiny bit greater when the overseers give their orders with Southern accents and the school is located in the former Confederacy—sorry, Auburn.) Add to that what many consider to be the exploitation of so-called “student athletes,” most of whom won’t make the pros and don’t receive a decent education because they need to spend most of their time practicing or playing ball. To the critics, we have an overwhelmingly white university administration and booster base that are happy to benefit from these black kids’ efforts in their athletic primes but won’t support even the best of them as coaches later in their careers. To be sure, none of this proves that Turner Gill was turned down by Auburn because of his race. But it does suggest that college football is in need of reform that goes much deeper than getting rid of the Bowl Championship Series.