“As long as we can count the number of Black people in these positions on our hands, the perception will remain that the white people own and manage the plantation and the players work it. They are high-priced labor to the billionaire owners, but make a pretty penny in comparison to the rest of the working world. As long as that disparity remains, African Americans will always be unfairly viewed as inferior in some way. Unless you believe the fallacy that Blacks are less capable, how can you disagree?”
When the news broke of the passing of former UIC head basketball coach Jimmy Collins last month, an immediate sense of anger emerged inside many of us who knew exactly what he wasn’t afforded. And why. See, before Collins was the head coach at UIC, he was famously (and to a large degree “legendarily”) the top assistant coach during Lou Henson’s thirteen-year University of Illinois run that shaped the basketball culture we live in throughout the state of Illinois. While Collins didn’t “lead” the “Flying” Illini that was one Sean Higgins shot away from making it to the NCAA championship game in 1989 (a team that was so dynamic the Fab Five at the University of Michigan modeled themselves after that U of I squad), he did build it. Collins was the one who came to the city, the inner-city Chicago concrete so many white scouts and coaches of big-name schools were uncomfortable setting foot on, as well as the surrounding Chicago suburbs, to scout and recruit the players who ended up becoming one of the greatest basketball teams Chicago has ever adopted.
While the players played for Henson, they came there because of Collins. Which was why he was known as “The Architect.” He built a program.
So in 1996 when Henson decided to retire from coaching Illini basketball, it became an ignorantly and universally assumed conclusion in Chicago basketball circles that Collins was going to get his overdue shot at sliding one seat over to fill the Illinois head coaching vacancy. It only seemed right, fair and forgone. We, instead, historically, were wrong. They, instead, historically, went with someone else. Someone who already had head-coaching experience at the NCAA level. Someone with a better résumé. Someone who was “more like Lou.” Lon Kruger fit a bill—a “description”—that Jimmy Collins didn’t. And that description wasn’t on Kruger’s resume, but it was apparent in his sit-down interviews and whenever he was on-camera. Kruger was white, Collins wasn’t. Far from it. And in many minds, to those of us who’ve lived through lifetimes of situations like this, this one was simply a more egregious continuation of what had become our norm inside the politics and power structure of sports.
The outrage, internal and restricted for the most part to bars, barbershops and basements of Black folks in Chicago, sides South and West. Another Black “I” in the growing list of one of our own being shit-on based on the color of his skin. Been there, been that, got the scars and keloids as proof. Yet as “off-base” as we may have been in the Coach Collins decision-making process by the University of Illinois, it never changed the fact that the decision made us feel a certain way. And those feelings were rooted in a history built on a racial fault line that shaped the framework of race and sports in Chicago. So while Collins not becoming the Fighting Illini’s head coach was not the straw that broke the back of the camel, it did become the one that stirred a cocktail called “We Know Bullshit When We Drink It.”
Fast-forward. 2012. Closer to home. New Year’s Eve. Black Monday. Pun intentional. The Chicago Bears fire Lovie Smith as head coach after nine seasons of service and a 10-6 record to end his final season. Sure, his team had started the season 7-1, only to fall apart on the back eight (games), sure, only a few years prior he’d taken them to the Super Bowl, sure, he had to deal with front-office dysfunction and undermining that was beyond his control, sure, he had to deal with Jay Cutler, but none of that mattered when it came to his removal. The “for sure” was that his Bears teams had only made three playoff appearances in his nine seasons as head coach. And the other “for sure,” for us—especially watching a coach get fired with a four-games-above .500 record—wasn’t the color of Lovie’s skin, it was the reality to us that the Bears probably would have kept him around had he been white. The same privilege they afforded Jay Cutler, in our minds. The same privilege the Cubs extended Lou Piniella and not Dusty Baker, in our minds. The same treatment the Bulls gave Toni Kukoc and not Scottie Pippen, in our minds. The same adornment fans gave Brian Urlacher and not Lance Briggs, in our minds. The same way the state used to only allow one CPS school into the state’s basketball tournament while white school districts downstate seemed to have a whole unrestricted set of restrictions. In our minds.
The dynamic of race inside of sports is not and has never been relegated to a player versus owner paradigm. The levels of power, control and white maleness are spread across the entire coalition of sports in Chicago and go far deeper than a simple management versus labor construct. And while sports and race are both an international and national paradox of life, like politics, all sports is local. And our sports in Chi when viewed through the prism of race is no different than our politics. Ugly and beautiful at the same time, bullshit and real simultaneously. It divides and unifies us. Just the racial polarization that keeps the White Sox and Cubs binary is an almost-too-easy go-to to use as a primary example. But it’s also too omnipresent and historically applicable to ignore. Yet the Blackhawks and Bulls can share the same space for generations and not deal with the same racial issues in two sports that are diametrically opposite on racial lines and structure.
Yet it remains the hidden-in-plain sight disturbances that create our disharmony. Incidents and insights when stacked up tell a tale of one city.
• When Kenny Williams was named general manager of the White Sox in October 2000, he returned home and found a horrific message spray-painted on the side of his house. “‘No n—– should run the Chicago White Sox,’ capital W-H-I-T-E.” (Williams said in an emotional video released by the White Sox. )
• In February 1994 Scottie Pippen calls out Bulls fans. Noting how the fans at Chicago Stadium “don’t boo white players the way they do Black players.” In 2013, Pippen, since retired, still affiliated with the Bulls, after shooting warm-up shots in the United Center prior to a Bulls game, gets spit on and called a n—–, while he was holding his daughter. (Fansided.com)
• In 2006 Dusty Baker, then Cubs manager, decided to open up for a USA Today reporter the local hate mail he’d received from Cubs fans. Before Baker, Don Baylor spoke of dealing with similar N-word letters and phone calls, as did Cubs players LaTroy Hawkins and Jacque Jones. (Chicago Tribune<)
• In Michael Strautmanis’ favorable piece in 2016 for ESPN’s: “The Undefeated” about the anomaly of being a Black Cubs fan, he admitted that “Wrigley Field became known as the drunken playground for yuppies.” In other words: No Blacks Allowed. Opening the piece with a great line he said to his wife as he left a Cubs game: “I think we were the only Black people there.” (The Undefeated)
• Minnie Minosa’s 1987 retelling, in a feature in The Reader, of being stopped by white Chicago police officers indicating that if he were a white Cubs player he wouldn’t have been harassed: “Some undercover cops stopped me. I hadn’t done anything wrong. But they started asking me questions and looking through the car. I said they wouldn’t be doing this if I were Jody Davis. You wouldn’t be doing this if I were [Ryne] Sandberg. You wouldn’t be doing this if I were [Rick] Sutcliffe. [all white Cubs players] You’re doing this because I’m Black, have nice clothes and drive a nice car. Call the police superintendent. Call the president of the United States, the governor, the mayor. They’ll tell you who I am.” (Chicago Reader)
• On the racism that envelopes the Blackhawks for their continued use of a Native American as their logo, mascot and identity, Dan Bernstein, legendary broadcaster at 670 The Score, acknowledged in an interview with WBEZ last year, “It’s a cartoon face of an Indian. That’s what it is. And there are many people who believe [it’s] not OK. People aren’t mascots.” (NPR)
A mascot they named Tommy in 2001. So indigenous, so respectful.
• Brandon Marshall (apparently/allegedly) calls out a white quarterback (Cutler) while playing for a white organization (Bears), verbalizing in the locker room everything the team wasn’t doing right seven weeks deep into the 2014 season, seven months after he signed a four-year, $39 million deal with the team. He used the word “unacceptable” on several occasions during his emotional speech; that was called a “tirade” in the media. And while several players didn’t feel Marshall crossed the line, the Bears organization must have. Marshall was traded before the following season. Cutler remained with the team for two more seasons and was released on a $2-million buyout clause after the guaranteed years on his 2014 seven-year contract extension had run out.
Which segues too conveniently into the current white power/Black problem hot topic in Chicago sports that Cutler was at the center of but was lucky to avoid during his eight-season run as Chicago’s quarterback: Black quarterbacks and the Chicago Bears. Lingering for decades and having a subliminal effect on how we (Black Chicagoans) feel deep down about the Bears (and the city in general), the “Black Quarterback thing” (or “non-thing” as it is often referred to by we) returned to the forefront three years ago when the organization appeared to overtly and blatantly bypass two Black quarterbacks in the NFL draft in order to select a white one. For a team that is one of the original NFL teams to have started only two Black quarterbacks in its entire franchise history (not including Henry Burris in 2002 and Jason Campbell in 2012 who each started one game apiece for the Bears as injury replacements)—especially with the lack of post-Sid Luckman Hall of Fame-level quarterbacks they’ve had on their rosters—is problematic enough. But to double down on that racially legitimate theory and select Mitch Trubisky over now-three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson and the quarterback who is widely considered as possibly the best to ever play at that position, Patrick Mahomes, turns a plausible conjecture of racism into a reflection of who the Bears are. And if we (all Chicagoans) know anything about this segregated union of seventy-seven neighborhoods we call our crib, who the Bears are is a direct reflection of who we be.
Author, journalist and historian Jack Silverstein, whose 2019 “Windy City Gridiron” piece on Bears owner George Halas’ connection and role in the twelve-year-long complete disappearance of Black players in the NFL, from 1934 to 1945, sent another ripple through Chicago sports media types who’ve always held Halas in God-like esteem, feels that the “race relations” with the city and sports is damning and defining: “Chicago is famous for its segregation, both historic and current, and it seems obvious [to me] that racial segregation in a given area gives cover to racist practices within sports, and that those practices harm the organization and ultimately the city as well. Consider the potential for a totally different postwar Chicago with regards to race and segregation had George Halas led the way with Black players on the Bears, rather than the team’s roster and staff reinforcing the city’s existing segregation. The ripple effects of such leadership are too great to count.”
Add to Halas’ “questioned and questionable” role along with the aforementioned Bears narratives to Mike Ditka’s “I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on/There has been no oppression in the last one hundred years that I know of” comments about racial injustice in America and Urlacher’s more recent true-to-color anti-Jacob Blake/anti-NBA Instagram post (“NBA players boycott the playoffs because a dude reaching for a knife, wanted on a felony sexual assault, was shot by police.”) and you have three of the most “Bears” Bears outlining the substructure on which the organization was eradicated and upon which it stands.
But is it fair to put this on Chicago sports or is this more of a reflection of Chicago the city and the racial agitation we often wear as tattoos and Moncler jackets?
As Silverstein reminded me when we spoke: “Sports are a reflection of society, but as we saw in 2020, society can very easily become a reflection of sports.”
The power in sports rests in ownership, where no professional Chicago team has had a minority owner or a minority ownership group at the helm. That power is often shared in front offices but occasionally on the fields and courts of play in the form of head coaches and lead managers. And while athletes like Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso are called “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. White Sox” and Walter Payton is universally considered the G.O.A.T. Bear and Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T. period (sorry LeBron), there remains a powerlessness when looking at the historic dynamic of those placed in position to lead sports teams and franchises in Chicago.
Cubs: In 119 years (since 1902), the Cubs have had only two Black managers, Dusty Baker and Don Baylor. (Even though they did hire Buck O’Neil in 1962, making him the first Black coach in MLB history and by technicality Ernie Banks took over as manager of the Cubs for one game in 1973, making him the first Black to even “manage” in the major leagues.)
Bears: In 101 years (since they started in 1920), the Bears have only had one Black head coach, Lovie Smith.
Bulls: In fifty-five years (since they started in 1966), the Bulls have only had two Black head coaches, Bill Cartwright and Pete Meyers. And Meyers, in his two stints as Bulls head coach, has a record of 0-3. Yes, he only coached three games.
Blackhawks: One in the ninety-five years they’ve been a part of the NHL (since 1926), but we’re dealing with a sport that has only had one Black head coach in the history of the sport (Dirk Graham for fifty-nine games in the 1998-99 season) and the Blackhawks are responsible for that.
White Sox: In the 117 years since they became the “White Sox” in 1904 (they were the “White Stockings” from 1901-1903), they’ve had two: Larry Doby taking over for Bob Lemon in 1978 for a total of eighty-seven games followed by Jerry Manuel’s six-season run from 1998-2003 (replaced by Ozzie Guillen).
In some twisted math, that’s eight Black lead/head coaches/managers for the five professional teams of Chicago over the collective course of 487 years. But no one is supposed to draw any conclusion of race by looking at those numbers over the course of those years, correct?
Then there are the optics: How the hiring of Lon Kruger over Jimmy Collins at U of I after Lou Henson retired in 1996 still stings; the Cubs Wrigleyville isolationism; original owner P. W. Wrigley not having a Black player on the Cubs major league roster until six-and-a-half years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line; the 2018 peek into the Bulls Draft Day war room where the public saw how white the team of decision-makers for the franchise actually were; the Bears’ anti-Black quarterback situation; the overtly white make-up of sports radio and the history of tokenism in Chicago sports media; the way the legacies of Black women Olympians like Tidye Pickett and Willye White continue to be ignored; the White Sox overlooking all of the qualified Black candidates for manager and settling for rehiring a retired Tony La Russa.
That unspoken aura of racial complicity when it comes to Chicago sports organizations has been a part of this city since the University of Chicago’s Maroon football team was a powerhouse in the Big Ten a century ago. And if any of the current franchises have a surreptitious anti-POC-centered agenda, this may be the time to make those old ways and practices disappear. History is starting to look like evidence.
“In 1963, at a conference in Chicago—a conference to end all conferences—I said if Black people are as good as we are, they’re just as bad as we are. I encountered a lot of grief with that one. We’re stupid if we think Black people are anything but human. But it’s the old story: We hate the people we’ve wronged.”
— Studs Terkel in “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession”
I was told once that race in Chicago was like a piece of raw steak on a plate. No sides, no vegetables, no salad, no forks, no knives. Just a beautifully marbled cut of sirloin. Staring at you. Forcing you to deal with it the best way you can.
In the Chicago Historical Society’s “Encyclopedia of Chicago,” there is a section titled “Creation of Chicago Sports.” Among the key pillars that established the culture of sports that has come to define Chicago, it mentions the Chicago League, and how because they were “excluded from such white neighborhood and industrial leagues, African Americans organized their own teams during these years. Mostly they played Black clubs from other cities, but plenty of games pitted white against Black teams.” And how “the divisions of race grew deeper” beginning in 1919 with Chicago race riots and how in the city “athletics developed their own version of America’s deepening segregation.” Singling out how “Jim Crow discrimination in sport flowered when legendary Chicago White Stockings star Cap Anson refused to let his team play against a top African American pitcher, achieving a policy of discrimination that soon spread throughout the league.” Ending stating the overall Chicago-centric fact that “sports have been central to Chicago life and identity. Our teams and recreations remain fundamental to our urban self-definition.”
In Chicago, we know race. Probably better than most because it shapes our city in ways and on levels that most other places in America are oblivious to. Chicago is a sports city. One of the greatest in this country. We “do” sports in ways most other places in America are oblivious to. Whether it’s Studs Terkel or Lou Palmer, or Tim Weigel or Lacy Banks, the truth is evident that while sports may be the great equalizer in many other cities, that is not necessarily fact when it comes to race in ours. This is Chi: We do race differently, too.
What the “Encyclopedia” failed to speak on was the way the situations involving race that find themselves at the intersection with sports in Chicago make us feel. And how the history of those overlapping feelings leads us as Black sports fans in this city to draw conclusions that may not be true, but are true to us. Because our reality is fucked, warped by, as Terkel wrote, a history of being wronged. Or a systemic hundred-plus-year background of not being treated right. Either way. Take MJ as the archetype. While Chicago (and most of the world) looks at Michael Jordan as the most powerful sports figure in Chicago’s history, “Black Chicago” sees a brotha who—with the exception of his final three years here when his contract paid out at $30-$33 million per year—at some points was the most underpaid person in sports. A slave to Jerry Reinsdorf’s rhythm. Regardless of team payroll, salary cap or player market value across the NBA at the time, when it’s known as it was in 1995-96 that Jordan had fallen to the thirty-second highest paid player in the league and that the way the contract was constructed his annual salary was decreasing over the life of his deal with the Bulls, our immediate Black default “jump to” was: “Boston would have never done that to Larry Bird.” The actuality that Jordan put Chicago and Chicago sports on the global map in a way no sports figure had ever done, making the Chicago organization he played for millions, to be maxing out at $4 million per year was more racist than it was cheap. That’s the feeling we were left to live with. One we still struggle and have to deal with. Is that just the team owner or is that a team owner simply doing what Chicago team owners do? The difficulty is not us discovering the answer, but not being able to separate the two when we do.
In Chicago, we turn sports heroes into gods and the teams they play for into empires. In the end, the Bears can argue that they are not racist because Vince Evans was once their quarterback, selected by them in the sixth round in the 1977 NFL Draft. And they can claim they once had Kordell Stewart play the position. And these two QBOC are something the Green Bay Packers organization has never had. The Bulls can argue that their recent hiring of Marc Eversley as GM, making him the first Black GM in the organization’s fifty-four-year history, removes them from the racist target. The White Sox can claim not only a history of diversity at the manager position, but the role Kenny Williams has played over the last twenty years as one of the highest-ranking Black team executives in all of baseball. The Blackhawks, even with the logo-mascot-name looming heavy over their current state, can deflect not only to the entire NHL by saying “look at what we have done that no one else in the sport has,” but they can point to their fan base and make an argument that it probably is one of the most racially diverse in the NHL and probably the second most ethnically and racially balanced one in the city behind the Bears. The Cubs can make their arguments, so can the University of Illinois, the Sky, DePaul, U of C, Loyola, the IHSA, the Chicago Park District leagues, the Chicago Sports and Social Clubs, etc. If so, all would be fair. Because even as there are athletic disparities, income and access-to-income disparities, executive-and-business-background disparities, cultural and educational disparities, economic and geographical disparities that all lead to some form of racial disparity, sports, once everything has been said and dissected, is supposedly and fundamentally rooted-in and based-on—and all about—fairness. Or… Is it all and only about winning and the power that comes with it?