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The issue here is black and white

By
September 19, 2007

I saw two football games this weekend, one live and one on TV, that each reminded me of what a complex issue affirmative action always is.

The TV game featured the San Diego Chargers, and I was shocked to learn that San Diego’s new coach is Norv Turner. Turner has compiled a poor record in a decade-long stint as an NFL head coach, but he keeps getting hired for some incomprehensible reason (San Diego is his third head coaching position).

My guess is that Turner is one of those people who interviews well, and makes the men who run NFL franchises very comfortable with the idea of hiring such a personable and intelligent fellow as himself.

Either that, or he has a bunch of compromising photos of very important people in a safe somewhere.

The game I attended in person featured the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, led by their legendary coach Charlie Weis. What makes Weis legendary (besides his own mind) is that he has managed to become one of the two highest-paid coaches in college football, while transforming Notre Dame into the worst major college football team in the nation.

Weis, who was hired with a very thin resume for the position, leveraged a bunch of wins over bad teams into a ten-year $30 million contract extension, despite the fact that he has never won a game against a good opponent. Notre Dame has now lost five games in a row, all by more than three touchdowns — a sustained record of ineptitude unmatched in the proud history of Notre Dame football.

What does any of this have to do with affirmative action? In the case of Turner’s brilliant career, his curriculum vita is Exhibit A if you’re wondering why the NFL now requires its teams to interview at least one African American candidate before deciding it would be a good idea to hire Norv Turner again.

As for Weis, my friend JJ explains why the different treatment given to Weis and his predecessor at Notre Dame, Ty Willingham (who is black and was fired after just three years), is an illustration of why race still matters: “Look,” he says, “why did the white guy get the 10 year contract extension in the first place? As I recall, there was plenty of excitement after Willingham’s first year too. Maybe ND’s athletic director sent him a nice fruit basket.

“I’m not saying ND’s AD & president are sitting there saying, well, ‘Weis (stinks), but he’s white, let’s give him another chance. Obviously that’s not what’s happening.

“But I do think there’s plenty of institutional racism, and this is a good case. Weis isn’t getting another chance because ND’s administration is overtly racist, it’s because everyone at ND is just more inclined to think highly of Weis and poorly of Willingham.

“There might have been plenty of reasons to think Willingham wasn’t the right guy — I’d have fired him too — but the fact is that there’s just no reason in the world to think Weis is a superstar coach or ever will be. He was a risky hire to start with, a guy with a mediocre track record as a coordinator and no experience whatsoever with either being the head of an organization or with college football at all. By the way, a black guy with that resume would have no possible chance of being hired at ND, but that’s neither here nor there.

“(Defending national champion Florida’s coach) Urban Meyer could start a college football program from scratch and it’d be better than this by year three. If you’ve ever been routed five times in a row, under any circumstances, you’re not a superstar coach, period. Occam’s razor has spoken — the most likely explanation for the sheer awfulness of this team is that Weis is simply a bad college football coach.

“But Weis gets another chance, while Willingham gets the ax. One (Weis) is laughably unproven, one (Willingham) been successful elsewhere. One’s white, one’s black.”

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)