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Sports talk radio lives on wild speculation. Except…

Five rules of the road for (not) playing the race card

Charles Barkley’s comments last week about the Auburn coaching situation sparked a lot of discussion in the world of sports talk. One particular conversation among those caught my attention: a diatribe against Barkley by Eric Kuselias on ESPN radio. Kuselias fumed that Barkley was making what was, in essence, a slanderous claim against Auburn in invoking race as a factor in the decision to hire Gene Chizik over Turner Gill. Kuselias’ attack on Barkley was a good illustration of five basic rules for how race can (and can’t be) discussed on (the largely white medium of) sports talk radio. (Tim Wise has the definitive discussion of the “race card” and its uses, here).

Rule #1: All discussion of race is, so to speak, Black and White

Kuselias essentially asserted that Barkley was slandering Auburn by calling race the number one factor in the decision to hire Gene Chizik over Turner Gill because Barkley was accusing Auburn of being “a bunch of racists.” In sports talk radio world, there are no subtleties when it comes to race. Either you are a proven member of the KKK, or to invoke race as a factor is unfair slander. Kuselias himself said that one reason for hiring Chizik was that he was “familiar” because of his ties to Auburn. But he isn’t necessarily familiar to his potential recruits, at least half of whom will be African American. Instead, he is familiar to wealthy boosters, alumni, trustees, high school coaches and other relevant actors. Such familiarity might have made him a safe choice and tipped the scales in his favor. Does that reality make Auburn’s decision-makers “a bunch of racists?” Not necessarily. And, I don’t think that’s what Barkley said. But race is a factor in social networking, including job networking. And it is plausible to say that invoking familiarity itself has potential racial implications. But to Kuselias, the all-or-nothing rule applies. It’s a nice way to foreclose any discussion of race.

Rule#2: A Few Good Men: Only the courageous few white radio hosts will dare speak out against the tyranny of political correctness.

One caller asked Kuselias whether Barkley was going to be “punished” for his comments. By whom? For what? Naturally, these questions were not addressed. But it was an opportune time for Kuselias to remind his audience that only he was willing to tell it like it was. Though it’s not true of all sports talk, white self-pity is a recurring theme in sports talk radio, the apogee of which may have been the controversial firing of Don Imus in the Spring of 2007 (for in-depth coverage of media reaction at the time, see here and here). In this world of self-pity, facts like the roughly four percent of upper division head football coaching jobs belonging to African Americans constitute far less of a grievance than the intolerable assertion that race might have something to do with that fact.

Rule#3: If the Shoe Were on the Other Foot…

This is the one where hosts and callers hypothesize about what would have happened if the circumstances had been reversed. In this case, one caller said, with Kuselias’ approval, that had Chizik been Black, Barkley would have defended the decision to hire him. The implication, unacknowledged by the caller, or Kuselias, is that Chizik does have a questionable resume (In the 15-minute segment I heard, Kuselias never once mentioned Chizik’s 5-19 won loss record in defending him as a good selection). But the point, of course, is that Black guys with Chizik’s resume don’t get prestigious job offers in college coaching. And White guys with Gill’s resume are hot commodities that have major programs banging down their doors to hire them. But it’s far more satisfying to traffic in hypothetical scenarios when you’re trying to prove that up is down and Black is white.

Rule#4: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

The life blood of Sports talk radio is banter, endless speculation and typically unsupported assertions about people’s (especially athletes’) motives and behavior. But when it comes to race, Kuselias warns us, you better be “100% sure” before you suggest that race is a factor. Why? That’s never really made clear. One presumes it’s because, in the upside down world of sports talk, once someone is accused of having racially questionable motives, one is somehow ruined for life. Barkley’s claims about Auburn will provide a good test. Let’s see whether there’s a boycott of Auburn football, or the program is tainted and fails to make money in the future or gets dropped from television contracts or suffers any other meaningful consequences as a result of its decision. I am willing to bet that none of these things will come to pass, despite the unacceptably dangerous suggestion by Barkley that the Chizik hire was tainted by race.

Rule#5: No Context Allowed.

Barkley played at Auburn. He’s from Alabama. He’s Black. He was involved in the hiring process that led to Jeff Lebo being named as Auburn’s men’s basketball coach. (Lebo, who is White, had a losing record, and of the four finalists, was the only one who had not made the NCAA tournament at a previous coaching stop. The other three finalists were, by the way, Black). Maybe Barkley knows something about race and sports at Auburn. Maybe there’s some context for his comments. To hear Kuselias tell it, all of that is irrelevant. Chizik was a great defensive coordinator at Auburn (I misidentified him as an offensive coordinator in the original post). He’s “familiar.” That’s it. That’s the case. No context, no history, no other considerations besides, presumably, a smoking gun in which the Auburn athletic director were caught on tape using the N-word could justify raising race as an issue. (And apparently ESPN’s own reporting that Gill’s white wife may have been a strike against him is not worthy of comment on Kuselias’ show. Hat Tip: Dwil).

To be clear, Chizik may turn out to be a great coach at Auburn. And Barkley can’t know that race was the number one factor. But the indignant victimology that white sports talk radio indulges in follows a familiar and tired script. And it could use a re-write.

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