In Richard Lapchick’s long battle against racial bias in sports, numbers have been his oral weapon of choice, reliable and irrefutable, though admittedly not the most effective means of commanding a room.
“Because I use a lot of statistics when I speak and that can bore people, sometimes I need to get their attention first,” said Lapchick, the author of the widely quoted racial and gender report cards that study hiring practices of professional and amateur sports.
At the outset of a September panel discussion on global multiculturalism in sports at the World Diversity Leadership Summit in Harlem, Lapchick introduced himself as he often does, with a haunting tale he once could not speak of without his heart racing to the point that he thought he might die.
In a voice measured and firm, he told of being brutally assaulted more than 30 years ago for asserting that sports was a vehicle from which to propagate change — and having the word nigger, misspelled with one G, carved onto his stomach with a pair of scissors.
On the panel that day were executives from Major League Baseball, the N.F.L. and professional tennis. In the audience were people linked to the business of sports.
In an instant, eyes widened. Jaws dropped. Mission accomplished, Lapchick unleashed his statistical barrage, aiming to quantify how far sports has come in the pursuit of racial and gender diversity — and how far the industry still has to go.
“The effect is very humanizing, to say the least,” said one of the panelists, Robert Gulliver, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for human resources and chief diversity officer.
Wendy Lewis, the senior vice president for diversity and strategic alliances for Major League Baseball, had heard Lapchick’s story before. She said she always winced when he told it, though in part because he repeated the racial slur.
“I appreciate Richard’s story and his pain,” Lewis, who is African-American, said. “But as a rule I’d rather not hear that word. The word is a tragedy, too.”
Lapchick, who is white, says he abhors the word, but he decided it was fair to use because he had been a target of it himself.
Early in life, Lapchick heard a multitude of racial epithets directed at his father, Joe, a Hall of Fame basketball coach with St. John’s University and the Knicks, who helped integrate the N.B.A. when he signed Nat Clifton, known as Sweetwater, in 1950. The telephone calls to the family’s Yonkers home that he occasionally answered were not for a young boy’s ears.
Nor was the sight of his father hanged in effigy one morning in the front yard.
Not coincidently, Richard Lapchick went on to become a human rights activist, author and educator. Lost in the blur of titles, statistics and time is a tale of courage and commitment, from a teenage friendship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an activist’s bond with Nelson Mandela.
In spirit, at least, Lapchick has been a sports watchdog from the day he stood up for Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, at the age of 15, and was knocked cold for his trouble.
“I had finished ninth grade at Power Memorial and the coach, Jack Donohue, had a basketball camp upstate,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “One of the kids — I actually knew him from Power — liked to use the N-word. Richard confronted him and got beat up.”
Pain often accompanies progress, Lapchick knew from his father’s experience and the stories he told of barnstorming with his team, the Original Celtics, and a black team, the New York Rens, during the 1920s and 1930s.
In the Lapchick home, lively discussions helped a confused boy better understand a tortured racial climate. Inspired by autobiographies of Malcolm X and Bill Russell, Lapchick set out to seek social change. In 1978, while teaching at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, he was a leading American advocate of using a sports boycott as an antiapartheid protest.
Lapchick and his group, the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sports and Society, aimed for a scheduled Davis Cup competition at Vanderbilt University in Nashville between South Africa and the United States. On the day he spoke there, the financial backers of the event pulled out, generating widespread publicity.
Back in his college office, he was working late one night when there was a knock on the door. Assuming it was campus security, Lapchick opened it without hesitation. Two men in masks burst in. The rest of the story was a haunting nightmare, recounted by Lapchick in a 1984 book, “Broken Promises.”
It took him 16 months after signing the book contract to write a word about the attack, 10 years to speak of it publicly. The tennis player Arthur Ashe, a friend of Lapchick’s, persuaded him to write about it.
“You need to start telling the story and talking about your dad, so people can understand why you’re doing the things you’re doing,” Ashe told him.
He went to the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan one morning, stood in front of a crowd of 2,000. His heart racing, sweating profusely, Lapchick thought he had gone into cardiac arrest. Knowing his father had several heart attacks before dying in 1970, he got through the speech and went to a cardiologist.
It was anxiety, said the doctor, who prescribed beta blockers to seal the brain from heightened emotions. They helped, to a point.
“People now will generally ask me to tell the story when they invite me to speak,” Lapchick said. “It’s still not easy. My heart starts beating fast. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s how it is.”
A Painstaking Account
About a decade ago, Lapchick and his wife, Ann Pasnak, developed a master’s degree program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando that combined business and sports management studies with a concentration on using sport to promote social change. The two-year program accepts 30 students a year.
When Lapchick introduces himself to an incoming class, the students, too, hear his story. They get the long version, though, the painstaking recounting of a weeks-long quagmire that included the police’s making little attempt to pursue his attackers, the medical examiner’s public assertion that the flesh wounds were self-inflicted and Lapchick’s reluctantly agreeing to take a polygraph exam. No one was ever charged.
Ashley Turner, a graduate of the program who works for Madison Square Garden, said: “All I had known about Dr. Lapchick was that his father was a famous coach and had signed the first African-American player. But when he told his story to my class, you could hear a pin drop in the room. The hairs on my arm stood up.”
After the attack at Virginia Wesleyan, Lapchick returned to work there. But when a kidnapping threat was made against his 5-year-old son, he accepted an offer from associates at the United Nations.
“I knew there was no job, really,” he said. “They were just trying to get me out of there and to give me a safe environment at the U.N. to slowly rebuild my confidence.”
During Lapchick’s time at the U.N., the South African rugby team visited the United States, rekindling his interest in the campaign against apartheid — a path that years later led him to Mandela’s side at a South Africa-Zambia soccer match soon after his presidential inauguration.
Mandela skipped parties at various embassies to attend the match, and Lapchick was curious why. Mandela told him how much he believed the boycott of South African sports had helped free the country of apartheid and by extension put him in office.
It was a moment, Lapchick said, that felt career- and life-affirming.
Lapchick by then had divorced his first wife and married Pasnak, whom he called his “soulmate and inspiration” for not allowing the attack in Norfolk to intimidate him. In 1984, he founded a center for sport and society at Northeastern University in Boston, where he developed a program to help professional athletes return to college to finish their degrees. He began regularly compiling his report cards for sports leagues and colleges.
His work was initially met with resistance and scorn. Lewis, a 15-year veteran with Major League Baseball, recalled her early relationship with Lapchick as “less than friendly.” She believed the grading terms of accountability were too stark, without meaningful context.
“Baseball was getting really poor grades, and there were times I had problems with the collection process,” Lewis said. “But as time went by, Richard became more detailed in his work regarding the complexity of baseball’s profile — the fact that this was a process that was going to take a while — and I began to feel more strongly about the work that he does.”
Diversity in Numbers?
Lapchick said he began receiving more cooperation in the years after Bud Selig and Roger Goodell became commissioners of M.L.B. and the N.F.L. But Commissioner David Stern, whose N.B.A. has historically received higher grades than the other leagues, argued that Lapchick’s good intentions — when carried to routine — missed the essential aim of fair-minded employment.
“If an enterprise is committed to getting the best work force, which means being an equal-opportunity employer and not limiting its potential talent pool,” Stern said, “then it shouldn’t be perceived as quote-unquote better if its increases its diversity/gender head count — for that matter if it decreases. If a job is open, and all candidates have a chance to compete, should the employer be praised or criticized based on the outcome of that search? I think not.”
He added: “I recognize the presumption that an organization that is not diverse has a job to do. But once you reach a certain critical distribution, the counting should stop.”
The N.B.A. — like the N.F.L. and M.L.B. — files league office personnel data to Lapchick at his Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida. In the latest round of grading, baseball received an A in racial hiring and a B-minus in gender. The N.F.L. scored an A-plus and a C, while the N.B.A. earned an A-plus and an A-minus.
The report cards have chided colleges for their record in hiring people of color and women to run athletic departments and given poor grades to newspaper sports sections in the United States. Lapchick also releases annual graduation rates of college football teams bound for the bowl games and men’s basketball teams in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Although Lapchick has denounced the academic trespasses and abuses of big-time college athletics, he continues to see their educational upside. He schedules 50 to 75 speaking engagements a year, preferring to make his diversity arguments on college campuses, and especially to student-athletes, hoping they will affect the sports industry.
Beyond his introduction, he does not try to rouse them with rhetoric.
“What’s helped Richard make more of an impact is that he’s very good at not making demands on people,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who recently met with a group of Lapchick’s students in Los Angeles. “He knows that you have to be able to win people over. It takes time to do it that way. It takes listening to people. It takes being willing to grow and change your perspective.”
To that end, Lapchick recalled a meeting he attended while serving with Bill Bradley, among others, on a commission to study culture and community in 1996. A female commissioner initiated a discussion on how the rap star Tupac Shakur and the industry he represented were in part responsible for a decline in social enlightenment among American youth based on music that objectified women and promoted violence and offensive language.
“I was slightly aware of the genre, so it all made some sense to me,” Lapchick said. “But it later struck me that this was the week after Tupac was murdered and she might not even have heard of him until then. The next week, I was going to speak to the N.B.A.’s rookie transition program in Northern Virginia, and I was on a bus from the airport with five African-American rookies. They were talking about Tupac and one was saying, ‘What are we going to do without him?’
“They were all devastated by his death, and I realized that he was their musical wizard, their sage, their storyteller. I was about 50 at the time, and it just dawned on me that here was the same cultural phenomenon being viewed by two different generations as polar opposites. I just decided I was going to start talking about these things, and when I told my daughter what I was going to do, she said, ‘Oh, I love Tupac.’ Then I knew it wasn’t about race but class and culture, about what people have and what they don’t have.”
The words, he decided, were merely meant to get people’s attention. Numbers told the story. Like it or not, he is still counting.