Povich Symposium discusses racism in sports


Half a century after the legislative desegregation of the nation, how far has the athletic world really come in relation to racism?

Panelists and guests  gathered in the Samuel IV Riggs Alumni Center on Tuesday night to discuss this controversial topic at the Ninth Annual Povich Symposium. Although racism was the core of the panel discussion, issues such as perception of professional and collegiate sports, the “N-word” and it’s usage, as well as social media, were also open for debate.

Hosted by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the symposium was moderated by Povich Sports Director George Solomon in the absence of Maury Povich who was ill. Panelists included UMD alumnus Scott Van Pelt of ESPN’s SportsCenter, Pardon the Interruption host Michael Wilbon, 12-year WNBA veteran and ESPN analyst Kara Lawson, Curator of Sports at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture Damion Thomas and ESPN’s Around the Horn panelist and visiting professor at Merrill College Kevin Blackistone.

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Panelists discuss issues at 9th annual symposium (Jessie Karangu/Pulsefeedz)

The panelists were asked to give opening statements regarding their opinions of racism in sports and had differing views on whether the issue was prevalent or just over exaggerated. Social media seemed to be the agreed-upon facilitator of racism, as well as other forms of discrimination, in the sports sector. Lawson recalled her experience as an analyst, citing that most of her encounters with racist remarks were on Twitter. Michael Wilbon agreed, calling Twitter “a sinister place” with Scott Van Pelt later adding that the site is a “cesspool where anonymity provides a cloak for stupidity and ignorance.”

Michael Wilbon talks to audience members after the symposium. (Breana Bacon/Pulsefeedz)

Wilbon and Van Pelt were also vocal about the importance of discussing topics such as race even if it makes people uncomfortable. Van Pelt mentioned several times that although he is often the only white man in his discussions about race, he is unafraid to talk about it because it is “just that important.”

The use of racial slurs was a recurring point brought up amongst the panelists, especially in terms of who can and cannot use them. Being of African-American and Caucasian decent, Kara Lawson expressed that she was raised to not use the “N-word” and does not see much use of it in the Mystics locker room.

Washington Mystics guard and ESPN analyst Kara Lawson (Breana Bacon/Pulsefeedz)
Washington Mystics guard and ESPN analyst Kara Lawson (Breana Bacon/Pulsefeedz)

Van Pelt had a different experience, stating that although he grew up surrounded by African-Americans who were comfortable with him using the word, he does not use it now because he realizes how much damage it can cause.

“I will never be able to say that the struggle of racism is over because as much hip-hop as I may listen to…I’m still a middle-aged white guy from the suburbs.” -SportsCenter’s Scott Van Pelt

A common theme discussed during the symposium was the color-blindness of sports. Lawson said her solution to teaching young athletes about race is to involve them in team sports, which hold no boundaries to race, in her opinion. Maryland women’s basketball junior guard Chloe Pavlech agreed, recalling her experience as a mixed race athlete playing on diverse teams.

“I’ve been on teams that are really diverse and I’ve been on teams where I’m the lightest girl or teams where I’m the only black person. It’s been easier for me, personally because I know how to relate to both types of people…It’s easier for both [races] can relate to me because white people say “Oh! She’s half white,” or black people say “Oh! She’s half black.” So, when they say people don’t see color in basketball, that is true, but it also isn’t because we talk about it everyday, but it’s all fun and games because we’re all family.”

Another topic discussed was Donald Sterling and his recent placement as the figurative face of racism in sports. The panelists all agreed that Sterling’s systematic racial practices were no secret, but were simply not paid attention to before the comments made towards his mistress were made public.

On that topic, the issue of race being a struggle for power was discussed among the panelists, each agreeing that players have less power than owners, thus becoming the bearers of responsibility for injustices. Damion Thomas added a possible solution to the problem of racism in sports: to see the court or field as a workplace and to be as professional as possible, eliminating the chaos that comes with racism.


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