Clinton’s Race Dialogue Turns to Sports


In his first effort to refocus attention on his race-relations initiative, President Clinton will turn his attention to the world of American athletics.

During a 90-minute forum to be broadcast live from Houston on ESPN tonight, Clinton and a panel including Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, Olympic track gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and football great Jim Brown will explore the successes and stereotypes of the playing field and what lessons they may hold for the rest of the country.

Clinton’s first town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio, in December produced a historic, if sometimes fuzzy, discussion that covered a wide array of issues. With his proscribed year of dialogue nearing an end, the president this time chose a narrower focus designed to appeal to a wider public.

“It engages the imagination of a very large sector of the American public, including people who are not otherwise engaged in issues of public policy, let alone race,” said White House Communications Director Ann F. Lewis, who helped organize the event.


Clinton launched what he called a yearlong national conversation on race with high hopes and lofty rhetoric last June, only to find that the goal was exceedingly elusive. In the four months since the Akron town hall, the initiative received little public attention from either Clinton or the media as the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation dominated the national landscape. Now, with only two months left in his self-determined timeline, Clinton has extended the initiative somewhat, scheduling a third and final town hall to be aired on PBS in July and asking his advisory board to stay on through September. The president, aides said, plans to produce a report on race in late December or early January.

At every step along the way, the initiative has proved controversial, from a race-board meeting disrupted by a white rights activist in Fairfax County, Va., to another session protested by Native Americans in Denver. Tonight’s forum will be no exception: A Latino group complained that it included no Latino panelists, until the last-minute addition of Felipe Lopez, a basketball player at St. John’s University, over the weekend.

Administration officials said ESPN handled the logistics and invited 24 Latino athletes, but only Lopez accepted. The organizers had trouble attracting some of the best-known names in sports, including Michael Jordan and Grant Hill, apparently in part because of conflicts with ongoing game schedules.

Among those who did accept were Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, New York Jets wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, baseball legend Joe Morgan, San Diego Padres chairman John Moores, San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy and University of Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley.


On one level, the sports world offers heartening success stories about integration and employment based on merit, an arena where young people grow up admiring heroes with different skin colors. But on another, it remains a segment of American life where troubling divisions persist, where different sports are perceived as belonging to different races and where the coaching staffs and front-office personnel remain predominantly white even if the players’ rosters are not.

“We see it as an opportunity to use sports as a microcosm for the larger society,” said Judith A. Winston, executive director of Clinton’s race initiative.

Most sports fans are white, but some of the industry’s biggest and best-marketed stars are black men like Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr. and Deion Sanders. Black athletes make up 79% of the players in the National Basketball Assn. and 66% of those in the National Football League. In Major League Baseball, 24% of players are Latino and 17% are African American.