[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[April 14, 1998]
[Pages 560-565]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the ESPN Townhall Meeting on Race in Houston
April 14, 1998

[ESPN commentator Bob Ley, who served as moderator, 
welcomed the President and asked what such a dialog on race and sports 
could bring to the Nation at large.]

    The President. Well, first of all, let me thank you and ESPN for doing this for the second time, and thank 
our panelists for being willing to put themselves on the line and be 
honest and open and accountable to the audience.
    I'd like to say a couple of things I think we can achieve. First of 
all, America, rightly or wrongly, is a sports-crazy country and we often 
see games as a metaphor or a symbol of what we are as a people. So I 
think by dealing with both the positive things which have happened, in 
terms of opportunity for people of all races and people getting together 
and working together, and the continuing challenges in athletics, I 
think just by doing that we learn more about the rest of the country and 
what needs to be done.
    Beyond that, I think that it's important that people see that in 
athletics in America, that the rules are fair, that people get their 
fair chance, and I would hope, too, that the concern for the lives of 
the players off the field, off the court, and what they're doing when 
their athletic careers are over, and whether they still will be full and 
equal members of society, closing the opportunity gaps that have existed 
historically between the races in our country--whether there's something 
we can do about that, because that clearly will have larger implications 
for the society as a whole.
    But all of us, as Americans, I think, should be both proud of how 
far we've come when we see what racial and ethnic and religious tensions 
are doing in other parts of the world, and at the same time should be 
very determined to continue to meet the challenges that still exist, 
because our country is becoming more and more racially and ethnically 
diverse. And if we can be one America, celebrating our diversity but 
knowing what we have in common, then it's the greatest asset I can 
imagine for us to take into the 21st century. But it's something we 
really have to work at, as I'm sure all these folks will tell us.

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[At this point, Mr. Ley asked former football player and actor Jim 
Brown for his impression of the condition of race 
relations in sports since an ESPN program on race 14 months earlier. Mr. 
Brown said tremendous progress had been made and that white America had 
provided African-Americans with opportunities that should be taken 
advantage of economically. Georgetown University basketball coach John 
Thompson described the need for frank and open 
discussions about many college athletes' lack of competency outside of 
sports. Keyshawn Johnson, wide receiver for 
the New York Jets, stated that during his rookie year in the National 
Football League, contrary to what he had been told, he found that all 
players were not treated equally. Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers, responded that 
the youth of the athletes entering professional sports had to be taken 
into consideration. Mr. Ley then asked about hiring practices in sports, 
particularly for head coaching positions in the NFL. Mr. Policy said 
that team owners would hire the best candidate for the job regardless of 
that person's race, but that the selection process itself was flawed. 
Mr. Ley then asked Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green how he broke the racial barrier. Mr. Green referred to 
his accomplishment as jumping a hurdle and said that discussions like 
this would focus attention on the issue. He pointed out, however, that 
out of 15 coaching vacancies in the last 3 years, not a single position 
went to an African-American. Mr. Ley asked the President if a conclusion 
should be drawn from that statistic.]

    The President. It says something. We just have to make sure we know 
what it says. For example, very often we assume that those numbers are 
there, there's some--maybe even an illegal practice, which may not be 
true. But if you go back to what Carmen said, one of the things that 
I've seen--or go back to what John Thompson said--and you know, 
Georgetown is my alma mater so I always try to cheer for John and try 
never to disagree with him. [Laughter] But there's some--let's assume 
that there is absolutely no conscious racism in any of these decisions. 
I have been now in an executive position--I've been President for 5\1/2\ 
years nearly; I was Governor of my State for 12 years. I've hired 
hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. In every position I've 
ever held, I've always hired more minorities than my predecessors. When 
I was Governor, I hired more minorities, appointed more than all my 
predecessors combined. No one ever accused me of giving anybody anything 
for which they weren't qualified.
    But what I found out was, if that was a goal and you knew it was 
important, there was a certain network by which--the easy network by 
which those decisions are made, and you've got to break through the 
network and change the rules if you want to do it.
    Mr. Ley. So the numbers are important then?
    The President. Numbers are important. But my reaction was, when 
Keyshawn's book came out--and you know, I'm 
a big football fan, I follow this, and I saw him play in college--is, 
you know, if I were running his team, I'd just want to make as many 
touchdowns as I could, you know. And what I think you have to do is to 
kind of--Carmen went around here and he really 
prepared for this tonight. So I think that's what we need people to do 
for these coaching positions. We need to think if this is a problem, we 
want more minority coaches in the NFL, we want more minority coaches in 
the college ranks, you have to say--and we're making an honest effort to 
pick the most qualified people, why aren't we producing them?
    I'd say there's something wrong with the recruitment system, with 
the pool, and you've got to rethink that and make a real effort. But my 
experience, my personal experience is, if you make a real effort there 
are lots of people out there. Since I believe intelligence and ability 
are evenly distributed across racial and ethnic groups, if you look at 
it, you can find it.

[At this point, Mr. Ley asked John Moores, owner 
of the Major League Baseball San Diego Padres, if he was satisfied with 
minority representation in administrative positions in baseball. Mr. 
Moores said he was not and noted that while baseball was the most 
ethnically diverse sport, well-qualified minority manager candidates had 
been passed over. Former baseball player and current ESPN baseball 
analyst Joe Morgan said he believed progress was 
being made and that equal interview opportunity should be given to all 
candidates for all types of vacancies. Mr. Ley asked Vince 
Dooley, athletic director at the University of 
Georgia, about the continuing predominance of white head coaches in 
Division I college football, where over half the players were African-
American. Mr.

[[Page 562]]

Dooley responded first by commending the President for the race 

    The President. Thank you.

[Mr. Dooley said college football needed more examples like Mr. 
Thompson, Mr. Green, and Tubby Smith, head coach of the NCAA champion 
Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team. St. John's University 
basketball player Felipe Lopez discussed the 
benefits of ethnic diversity in sports. Former track star Jackie Joyner-
Kersee, administrator of a foundation 
in East St. Louis, IL, helping youth, discussed the need for action to 
follow up on the dialog, in order to provide more examples for minority 
youth and to combat the subtle racism in business networking that kept 
the upper strata exclusive. After a commercial break, Mr. Ley asked Mr. 
Johnson about racial stereotyping by professional athletes. Mr. Johnson 
replied that the media created stereotypes in their coverage but 
management and coaching often reinforced them. At this point, Mr. Ley 
called on audience member Michael Waters, a 
high school student body president, who asked Mr. Brown if the 
stereotype of blacks being more athletically adept than whites was a 
form of discrimination against whites. Mr. Brown dismissed the questions 
of stereotyping as missing the point of the discussion and then 
reiterated his emphasis on economics, saying that African-American 
coaches and athletes making millions of dollars in salaries should hire 
black lawyers, agents, and managers exclusively. Mr. Johnson said that 
his attorney and investment advisers were African-American, but were 
hired for their skills rather than their race. Ms. Joyner-Kersee added 
that in her foundation she tried to give opportunities to those who 
might not get them otherwise. Mr. Thompson responded that he would not 
terminate his relationships with whites who had helped him achieve his 
success, and that society caused individuals to think in such racially 
limited terms. He then stated that blacks didn't want to feel they had 
to be perfect to get the job, but only wanted the same opportunity to 
try. Mr. Dooley commented that he paid more attention to a candidate's 
history of success than to an interview. Mr. Ley then asked the 
President for his views.]

    The President. Well, first of all, I appreciate the honesty of the 
interchange and that shows basically the--actually the progress that's 
been made on this issue in athletics. Why? Because I basically--I agree 
with the point Jim Brown made, but I respect what 
John Thompson said. That is, if you have 
personal experiences with people who have helped you to achieve their 
goals, even if they're of different races, and you're not going to turn 
around and abandon your friends and abandon people who are doing a good 
job for you. And that's good.
    The point Jim is making, however, is a 
different one, and I'd just like to sort of--because when we get to the 
last section, there's another issue I want us to get to, which is 
related to this--but what he's pointing out, there's still a huge 
opportunity gap in our society by race in terms of economic standing. 
That's the only point he was making--and that if we want a stable 
society, we want large middle classes among African-Americans, large 
middle classes among Hispanic-Americans, large middle classes among 
Asian-American immigrants--first generation immigrants. That's the point 
Jim's making. And that if a group, a certain group within the African-
American community, let's say, has amassed this wealth and then has to 
reinvest it, to the extent that they can also help to create this larger 
middle class while helping themselves and doing something, that's a good 
    I think you can say that and still respect John's decision, which I think we all do, and respect any other 
individual decisions that would cross racial lines. But the effort to 
create a middle class, people whose names will never be in the newspaper 
but who helped to build a big, stable society, I think that's a very 
important goal for us here.
    Mr. Ley. Do you think athletes have a special 
responsibility to have a social conscience to act, to be involved in the 
communities, or is that unfair?
    The President. No, I don't think it's unfair. I think--first of all, 
I think anybody with a special gift has a special responsibility. And if 
you've got a special gift, whatever the gift is--if you're a great 
singer, if you're great at making money, if you're a brilliant 
scientist--I think if you have a special gift, if God gave you something 
that other people don't normally have, and no matter how hard they work 
they can't get there, then you owe more back. That's what I believe. So, 
yes, I believe that.

[After a commercial break, Mr. Ley asked Mr. Green about access to the 
power structure elite

[[Page 563]]

in the NFL. Mr. Green responded that there needed to be equal access and 
opportunity for ownership of teams. Mr. Brown suggested that acquiring 
ownership was simply a matter of amassing enough money, and that 
African-Americans needed to pool their economic clout to attain the 
power ownership provides. Mr. Thompson agreed, saying that the lack of 
strong relationships between financial institutions and the African-
American community undermined participation at the ownership level. Ms. 
Joyner-Kersee noted that companies like Nike and sports celebrities 
Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, who endorsed Nike products, used their 
wealth and fame to give back to the community. Mr. Brown reiterated his 
position, suggesting that African-Americans pool their resources to form 
a capital base. Mr. Ley then took a question from audience member 
Fernando Tamayo, a senior at Washington High 
School, who pointed out that Hispanic-Americans had not yet been 
mentioned, although they were the fastest growing minority in America. 
Mr. Lopez agreed and asserted that the more the Hispanic community 
worked together, the more opportunity they would get.]

    The President. Let me make one observation about this. Hispanic-
Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in our country. 
Historically, they have done very well in America through an enormous 
work ethic and an enormous commitment to family.
    There was a wonderful movie a couple of years ago with Edward James 
Olmos and a number of other Hispanic actors and actresses called ``Mi 
Familia.'' It was a wonderful movie; some of you may have seen it. But 
we have a problem today that athletics could play a role in solving with 
the Hispanic community, and I hope we'll get into this a little more in 
the last section--that is, what about all the athletes whose names you 
never know, who play in junior high or high school or college or even in 
the pros? And what about the rest of their lives? I hope we can talk 
about that a little bit before we leave.
    But last year, for the first time in modern history, the graduation 
rates from high school of African-Americans and white Americans were 
virtually identical--the first time ever. The graduation rates of 
Hispanics is much lower; the dropout rate is higher. Part of that is 
because there has been a heritage in Hispanic immigrant families of kids 
dropping out of school and going to work to support the family.
    The problem is, today if you don't have a high school diploma and a 
couple years of college, it's hard to get a job where your income grows 
over time. So one of the things that I'm hoping is that we'll have more 
Hispanic young people in athletic programs and at least in high school; 
that will get more coaches to convince them and their brothers and 
sisters to stay in high school and hopefully go on to college. Because 
America is not going to function very well if we have a Hispanic dropout 
rate that's 20 percent higher than the rest of society.

[Mr. Lopez agreed, saying that although basketball got him into college, 
he wanted his education to make him more than just an athlete and he 
hoped to use his education and success in ways that would give back to 
his community. Audience member Martin Garcia, 
a senior at Jesse H. Jones Senior High School, asked Mr. Moores why 
Little League baseball was not promoted in the inner cities. Mr. Moores 
responded that it was a good question and that the country would benefit 
from more support at that level. Mr. Morgan agreed and said that 
resources in the United States were not adequately tapped, as in foreign 
countries, for recruitment of baseball players. He noted the success of 
basketball and its outreach programs for inner-city youth and urged 
baseball to do the same.]

    The President. I just wanted to follow up on something Joe said and 
something that the questioner said because he made a slightly different 
point. You know, we had one of the best World Series last year we've had 
in a month of Sundays. I mean, everybody loved the World Series--it goes 
down to the last game, at the end of the game. And everybody was 
thrilled with the story of the young Cuban pitcher and how his mother 
finally got out of Cuba to come watch him pitch. And he's saying, ``But 
I've got a brother at home who's an even better pitcher than I am.'' And 
as strained as our relationships with Cuba are, it's virtually more 
likely that you can be a Cuban player in Major League baseball than a 
Cuban-American from Miami or New Jersey.
    And so it's not just African-Americans. You've got all these 
Hispanic-Americans here who are in inner cities. And we now have got 
some very exciting Asian--Japanese players in Major League baseball. But 
America is full of Asian

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immigrants. And, the baseball folks who are here, I really think that we 
haven't answered it fully. The truth is that there are tens of thousands 
of kids in every State in this country who are not in any kind of 
athletic program unless they're in a football or basketball program.
    Now, the mayor here and the former 
mayor, Mr. Lanier, who is also here, he started a 
program with thousands of inner-city kids in soccer and golf programs. 
And it may be that--I'm just saying that maybe one specific thing that 
could come out of this meeting is if we could actually bring baseball 
back to kids that aren't in the football or basketball programs, it 
might be a great gift to the future.

[After a commercial break, Mr. Johnson asked those on the panel in 
administrative or ownership positions why athletes had difficulty 
getting positions with the organizations after their playing days were 
over. He also asked if NFL owners would give an African-American-owned 
franchise equal opportunity. Mr. Policy responded that the Nation was 
awakening to problems in race relations, including inequities in the 
sports business, and was taking steps to correct them. Audience member 
Dennis S. Brown said that he recalled 
hearing a pro quarterback state that black and white players did not 
shower together, and he asked Mr. Johnson to respond. Mr. Johnson 
replied that his experience was that, for the most part, everybody 
mingled in the locker room and any racial comments there were made 
jokingly and understood that way as well.]

    Mr. Ley. All right, we were at this point 
supposed to be wrapping things up, but the President has graciously 
agreed to spend a little bit more time with us this evening, so we'll 
have a chance to ask some more and answer some more questions.
    The President. That little boy, you'd better ask him, that young 
    Mr. Ley. We're going there, sir.

[Jesse, a 13-year-old boy who introduced himself as half Mexican-
American and half Irish, asked Mr. Morgan if he ever discouraged 
minority youths from focusing on professional sports as a goal and 
encouraged them to concentrate instead on school. Mr. Morgan answered 
that he felt it was good to encourage a mix of the two, that succeeding 
in both areas was not impossible. Mr. Thompson asserted that if 
opportunity was provided, people would be educated, but that too many 
young people did not see opportunity ahead and therefore did not work 
hard in school. Audience member Tiffany Singleton, a senior at a high school in Houston, asked Ms. 
Joyner-Kersee if she felt doubly obligated to carry expectations as both 
a woman and an African-American. Ms. Joyner-Kersee said she put no added 
pressure on herself but hoped her achievements inspired others. Audience 
member Matt Sharp, a junior at Elks Lake High 
School, then asked the President if it was fair for minority athletes 
who were only average students and whose SAT's were low to get 
scholarships over white students who were not athletes but excelled 

    The President. Let me answer the question. I had a problem in 
California when they voted--and California has been very good to me, but 
the people and I disagree with these things--[laughter]. California 
voted to repeal their affirmative action admissions policy. And I made 
the argument that they would give a minority athlete a scholarship under 
the new system because of his or her athletic ability and have another 
member of a minority group who had higher grades and higher SAT scores, 
but no athletic ability, couldn't get a scholarship. So it wasn't just a 
race issue.
    Let me say what I think about that. First of all, I think colleges 
and universities have a right to have athletic programs and they have to 
recruit if they want to have them. The real issue is we should have a 
system in America, since we now know that it is necessary to have at 
least 2 years of education after high school if you want to have even a 
good job with a growing income for younger people, and it's better--we 
have a vested interest of the Nation in seeing that every young person 
like you gets to go to college. What I've tried to do is make sure that 
money would never be an obstacle to anyone, and that's really ultimately 
the way to resolve that. Every college and university has to make up its 
mind; do they want to have an athletic program; then they'll want to 
compete for the best athletes--they're going to do that. But it should 
never, ever be at the expense of providing academic opportunities to 
people who are qualified.
    Let me just say, since I've been in office, we passed a HOPE 
scholarship, which gives everybody a $1,500 tax credit for the first 2 
years of college, tuition and tax credits for junior and

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senior year and graduate school. We've got more Pell grants, more work-
study positions, more national service positions--we've got more 
opportunity. And, I think--I'll say this--for me, that's the answer. I 
don't think--otherwise, a college simply can't have an athletic program 
or recruit its athletes.
    My view is they ought to be able to recruit athletes, but they ought 
to give enough scholarships so that every young, gifted person who can 
get admitted to the school should be able to go without regard to the 
money that they or their families have. That's what I believe.

[After a commercial break, Mr. Thompson responded to Matt's question, 
saying that students from wealthy families and children of alumni also 
received special preference from universities. Mr. Ley then asked the 
President to summarize his thoughts on the meeting.]

    The President. Well, I feel better about my country than I did 
before we started. And I think all of you do, don't you? [Applause]
    I want to applaud the panelists for their candor and their honesty. 
I want to thank the members of the audience for the questions that were 
    I want to say just two things. Number one, I think it's obvious that 
athletics in a way is leading America toward a more harmonious, united 
society, but we still have work to do--in the coaching ranks and the 
management and the scouting and all of that. We ought to keep working on 
    The second thing I'd like to say is, I hope that everybody who's in 
an athletic program also learns good life skills to make good choices, 
good decisions; can take something out of the teamwork, the rules of 
things that you get from being in athletics so that if they play in high 
school but not in college that they're still better off and they're 
better citizens.
    The same thing if they play in college, not in pros. The same thing 
when they finish their pro career. We didn't talk much about that 
tonight, but I think that's important--that the lessons learned from 
athletics carry over into good citizenship, including attitudes about 
people of different races. If that happens, we're going to be a lot 
better off.

Note: The President spoke at 7 p.m. in the Cullen Theater at Wortham 
Theater Center. In his remarks, he referred to Mayor Lee Patrick Brown 
and former Mayor Bob Lanier of Houston. The townhall meeting was 
broadcast live on the ESPN cable network as ``Sports and Race: Running 
in Place?'' The meeting was part of ``One America: The President's 
Initiative on Race.''