Tuesday, September 26

Attacking Allen's Past

Recent headlines have created a buzz about Sen. George Allen after three former college football teammates say he repeatedly used an inflammatory racial epithet and demonstrated racist attitudes toward blacks during the early 1970's.

Perhaps it's because one of my favorite made-for-TV movies in the 70s was Brian's Song, which recalls the details of Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan), a football player stricken with terminal cancer, and his friendship with Chicago Bears teammate Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), who helps him through the difficult struggle, but the so-called Allen controversy is none too surprising to me. Allen, like many people, grew up in an era known for racial tension and played in a sport that struggled with the question of desegregation. Many people were confused about race at the time, black and white equally.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, racial tension is created after team coach George Halas decides that the pair should room together during training camp and road games because they are both rookie fullbacks. Given the fact that Piccolo is white and Sayers is African-American during a time when blacks were still fighting for civil rights in America, it was viewed as a progressive and controversial decision. At the time, no black player had ever been the roommate of a white player in the history of the NFL. Eventually, the racial tension gives way to understanding.

It seems that Allen took a somewhat similar journey in that he once embraced some shortcomings of 70s-era Southern culture, but then later concluded the Confederate flag was a symbol of violence for black Americans (as opposed to thinking it a symbol for the Dukes of Hazzard) and expressed some regret. "There are a lot of things that I wish I had learned earlier in life," Allen said in an appearance this month on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I grew up in a football family, as you well know, and my parents and those teams taught me a lot," Allen said on the program. "And one of the things that you learn in football is that you don't care about someone's race or ethnicity or religion."

At present, this does not seem all that dissimilar from the made-up brand damage recently experienced by Tiger Woods' wife, where false allegations created some temporary brand damage. In truth, of 19 former teammates and college friends, two said they do not remember Allen acting in an overtly racist manner. Seven others said they did not know Allen well outside the football team, but do not remember him demonstrating any racist feelings. Seven more teammates and friends said they knew Allen well and did not believe he held racist views.

The seemingly lone, non-anonymous vocal attacker is a radiologist in North Carolina who played tight end on the team when Allen was quarterback. He claims Allen came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where 'blacks knew their place' and used the N-word on a regular basis. Ironically, it was the radiologist who sported the nickname 'wizard.'

I'm unconvinced that Allen was an active racist as this former teammate claims, but Allen's team has to do a better job addressing it in a timely manner. Unresponsiveness gives credibility to even the most baseless charges.

1 comments:

Rich on 9/27/06, 12:17 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

"My conclusion is based on the very credible testimony I have heard for weeks, mainly from people I personally know and knew in the '70s'" - Sabato said, which means he never unequivically heard George Allen use the N word.

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