Lesean McCoy, Chip Kelly and the Trivialization of Racism – posted 5/17/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/20/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on May 20, 2015 under the title “The Racism Game”.
The obsessive Deflategate scandal aside, probably no story in the football offseason was more surprising than the trade of Lesean McCoy. The Philadelphia Eagles traded McCoy, a star running back, to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonzo. In 2013, McCoy was the leading rusher in the NFL and in 2014 he finished third.
The whole episode would not be worthy of much discussion if not for McCoy’s public comments since the trade.
McCoy accused the Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly (former New Hampshire guy, by the way) of racism for making the trade. He said Kelly did not like or respect stars and he felt Kelly was getting rid of all the good Black players. In this connection he mentioned Desean Jackson, a former Eagle, who was a star wide receiver. Kelly had released Jackson the previous season. Jackson signed with the Redskins.
Others in the media like Stephen A. Smith of ESPN also accused Kelly of racism. He pointed to Kelly’s handling of wide receiver Riley Cooper after Cooper’s drunken, racist comments at a Kenny Chesney concert. Kelly let Cooper stay on the team. He gave Cooper a chance to make amends.
Since there may be no worse accusation than being called a racist, what is the evidence behind McCoy’s accusation of racism?
It appears to be that Kelly traded him. The Eagles did not want to pay the many millions McCoy wanted. The Bills signed McCoy to a 5 year, $40 million contract that includes $26.5 million in guaranteed money.
But what about McCoy’s accusation that Kelly is getting rid of all the good Black players? In free agency in 2015, the Eagles signed, among others, linebacker Brad Jones, cornerback Byron Maxwell, cornerback Walter Thurmond, running back Ryan Matthews, running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Miles Austin. In the draft, they took wide receiver Nelson Agholor and cornerback Eric Rowe. All are Black.
As for the rest of the team, Darren Sproles, Demeco Ryans, Fletcher Cox and Jordan Matthews are all fine players. Maybe not stars like McCoy but very good football players. They are also Black.
I think McCoy’s accusation of Kelly being racist was utterly unfounded. He was sliming a reputation out of anger because he was traded. But even worse, McCoy was unintentionally trivializing the meaning of racism.
False accusations rebound to the detriment of the accuser. They also are confusing because they point in the wrong direction. They do not direct attention to the real racism that does exist.
What McCoy said presents an unfair view of Kelly and his approach to coaching. Although McCoy is a great football player, he appears to be a narcissistic, self-centered multi-millionaire. I would guess that along with the salary cap McCoy’s exit from the Eagles had more to do with his not buying into Kelly’s system. Kelly is putting together his own team that has almost no leftovers from the Andy Reid era.
The most insightful article I have seen about Kelly’s unique approach to football coaching was from Philadelphia Daily News reporter, Paul Domowitch. In a piece wriiten on May 8, Domowitch argues that what Kelly wants has nothing to do with race or color.
“It is about work ethic and intelligence and commitment. It is about wanting smart players who, regardless of race, creed or salary-cap number, will buy into the Chip Kelly Plan and have an unquenchable desire to get better, no matter how much success they’ve already achieved.”
Domowitch cites a book by a Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck, as important to Kelly. The book is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck contrasts what she calls a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Domowitch says Kelly wants players with a growth mindset. That is players who believe they can expand their potential through years of passion, hard work and training.
Kelly is a sports science guy. He very carefully looks at things like sleep regimen and nutrition. The team creates personalized performance smoothies for each player. Players wear sleep monitors so that coaches can correct poor performance due to lack of sleep. Kelly and the Eagles have invested heavily in strength and conditioning coaches. To quote Domowitch:
“Kelly wants players with a growth mindset who believe the harder they work the better they will continue to get. Contrary to what McCoy believes, he has absolutely no problem coaching stars. He just doesn’t care much for coaching players with star mentalities, black or white.”
When I heard about McCoy’s comments, I recalled another story I had read about Kelly from Dave Zirin, a sportswriter I respect. In 2011, Zirin was touring the country with Dr. John Carlos, a former Olympian and anti-racist campaigner. Carlos was one of the two Black athletes who had raised a clenched fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. That was an iconic and electrifying moment that galvanized anti-racists world-wide.
Zirin wrote how on the 2011 tour they were trying to speak to student-athletes in big-time NCAA football and basketball programs but overwhelmingly they got no response or a negative response from these programs. Only one coach from a big university sports program asked Carlos to come and speak to his team. That was Chip Kelly at Oregon.
In the piece, Zirin says he called John Carlos to get his recollections of the experience with Kelly. Carlos recalled that Kelly introduced him to his players as a person of principle and resolve and Kelly said that any successful team needed to share those kind of principles if they wanted to rise above being ordinary. Carlos remembered Kelly being passionate in having his players know the history of 1968 and the sacrifices made by Dr. Carlos and his generation of Black athletes.
Now does that sound like someone who is a racist?
I would suggest that trying to read in racist motivation to a football trade is a waste of time.
Most people seem to think of racism as something bad that someone says. While it certainly can be that, I would suggest quite a different understanding.
Racism is institutionalized in America. It is deeply embedded in our social structure with roots going back to slavery. We have ghettos in every major city; discrimination in housing, employment, health care and education; mass incarceration of young Black men; and, blatant police misconduct directed at minorities.
Racism is not about an unhappy football-playing multi-millionaire. We should be looking at the living and working conditions of the millions of everyday people who are struggling with little or no financial security. It is those conditions that need to be addressed.
Even with some good initiatives, the ascendance of the Obama presidency has not changed much for the masses of Black people in America (this is also true for poor and middle income people of all races). Obama’s presidency has been important symbolically but on issues like income inequality, it is hard to argue poor and middle income people have gained ground.
In surveying the field of potential Presidential candidates for 2016, I would say no candidate has distinguished him or herself by staking out a strong anti-racist platform. We remain in a dishonest period of denial and unconscious racism. We still pretend to phony colorblindness.
Accusations like McCoy’s do a disservice to the real struggle against racism. We need some truth tellers in the political arena and right now, they are lacking.