“All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.”
That was the closing line of an essay written by Alabama All-America offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and recited by members of the Crimson Tide team.
The powerful words were accompanied by a beautifully produced video. The line was delivered by a diverse group of Tide football team members, including Head Coach Nick Saban.
Saban has said this is not a time to be silent. The cynic would say the 68-year-old coach is just one step ahead of the competition again when it comes to reaching potential recruits with a message that will undoubtedly resonate with them.
There’s no denying that will be one of the byproducts of the video. But even if that was Saban’s motivation — and I would never assume that was the case for anyone, whether they make $8 million or $8,000 a year — his stand should not be taken for granted.
Fifty years from now Saban will be on the right side of history when it comes to this issue. This video may not be a radical statement, but it makes clear his position on the root cause of the social unrest that’s sweeping the country.
And before you think it’s easy for somebody of Saban’s standing and job security to make a stand — particularly when that stand will benefit him in recruiting and winning games — I would ask you to consider where we were as a state and a country a half century ago.
The head football coach at Alabama was Paul “Bear” Bryant, maybe the only person in state history to have the approval rating, job security and influence to match Saban.
Bryant was the head coach at Alabama on the day Gov. George Wallace stood in the door at Foster Auditorium and uttered the words that made him infamous across the globe: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Wallace’s stand was little more than a photo opportunity because he wasn’t going to be able to prevent two Black students (James Hood and Vivian Malone) from entering the building and registering for classes.
(Interesting side note: Malone was born in Monroeville, but both of her parents worked at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile. Her nephew is former Mississippi State and NBA basketball player Jeff Malone, and her brother-in-law is former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.)
If Bryant was in his office on that day in 1963, he could have looked out the window and seen the crowd assembled.
There’s no question that later in his life Bryant treated all of his players justly. Good men like Sylvester Croom and Ozzie Newsome speak as glowingly about their coach as their White teammates do.
In fact, just before he passed away, Bryant told Time magazine he wanted to be the “Branch Rickey of football,” referring to the baseball executive who integrated the Major Leagues.
There’s also no doubt Bryant would have won even more games and championships if he had begun recruiting and signing Black players in 1963. But he determined the timing wasn’t right.
It’s so hard to judge what any of us would have done if we were placed in a leadership position in Alabama in 1963. Judging from 57 years later is certainly much easier than acting in the moment in that climate.
But there is one thing we know for sure. The legendary Bryant would not have been fired if he had defied his bosses and the state’s governor and signed players of all races. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that a phone call from Bryant to Wallace saying the coach would be there to oppose the governor would have changed history and erased that embarrassing moment in the schoolhouse door from our state’s history.
I don’t bring this up to castigate Bryant. Taken in its entirety, Bryant’s life is a good example of how to treat all people well.
But, just as Saban does today, Bryant had professional reasons to support racial equality in the state, not to mention it was what he believed in his heart was right.
One month after he died, Bryant was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, the highest honor an American civilian can attain.
His players of all races agreed it was a deserving honor.
But don’t ever forget that Saban will be in line for similar praise when he decides to retire, no matter what stance he took during this tumultuous era.
Yes, he has a personal motivation to stand with his players during these troubling times. But we should never confuse that fact with the idea he made the easy decision.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on the new Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m.
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