Black and Blue

A few days after Dennis Green was fired as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, I flipped on the radio on my way home from work. What I heard almost made me veer off the road. After having spent the better part of a decade savaging Green in his Star Tribune sports column and his talk show on KFAN-AM (1130), Dan Barreiro was wondering out loud whether institutional racism might have been a factor in the coach's contentious relationship with the media.

There was no question, Barreiro mused, that the 52-year-old Green had suffered from "acute" forms of racial hatred in his life, both as a boy growing up in Pennsylvania and as a college football player in the late Sixties, when Black Power was a function of necessity. The economic injustice, the hateful epithets, the always implicit, sometimes explicit threats of violence--it would be enough to make any man a tad "paranoid."

Barreiro's voice was calm. His sentences were measured. He actually seemed to be considering that maybe, just maybe, there was something he and his mostly white, mostly male audience could learn about being a black person in a position of authority in a racially divided nation.

Then he reverted to form. It was his past that made Green's present behavior all the more reprehensible, Barreiro asserted. The coach knew what "real" racism looked like, so by playing the race card he was cheapening the struggle. After that it was familiar territory: The Dennis Green story is not about race. It's about incompetence in the postseason, arrogance off the field, and troubling allegations of sexual harassment.

Other local sports writers and commentators agree with the analysis. The Strib's Patrick Reusse believes Green's ego was at the root of his downfall. The Pioneer Press's Tom Powers wrote that Green has managed to dupe the national media into believing he has been mistreated; his colleague Bob Sansevere, who in 1997 referred to Green as "the cockroach of NFL coaches," hasn't been shy about saying he told us so. But since Green's dismissal it has been Barreiro's vitriol for the former coach that has been the most prominent--and the most prominently linked to the subject of race.

It should be noted--and don't worry, it has been, ad nauseam--that there is no evidence that Vikings owner Red McCombs's move to oust Green was anything but a pure football decision. The point Barreiro refuses to acknowledge is that the media's coverage of Green, the ex-coach's obsessive distrust, and the fans' reaction to both are black-and-white issues. And the time has come for a rational dialogue on the subject. Just ask prominent black Minnesotans, from Supreme Court Justice Alan Page to Macalester professor Mahmoud El-Kati to former Viking Jim Marshall: If Green were white, he would have been treated differently. His unimpeachable record of public service, his well-run practices, his affinity for fishing--all would be the stuff of local lore, à la another former Viking coach, Bud Grant.

Does that mean if Green were white he would have won more games, been more friendly, had more fans, or kept his job longer? These questions are irrelevant. What is important is that when Green was hired in 1992, he was only the second black coach in NFL history. To ignore that milestone--which Barreiro has consciously done since day one--and to squander the opportunity to honestly evaluate the media's role in shaping the public's perception of Green as a black coach is irresponsible. In this regard Reusse, Sansevere, and Powers surely share the blame.

Barreiro's saw is that the local press would have had less of a problem with Green if the guy answered questions, owned up to his mistakes, and toned down his ego. This line would be a little easier to swallow if I hadn't heard countless reporters over the years privately complain about how former Twins manager Tom Kelly was an egotist who constantly belittled beat reporters. Has Barreiro criticized Kelly over the years? Yes. Did he make it personal? No.

Barreiro's recent behavior seems born of the same type of paranoia of which he accuses Green. When someone suggests that comparing Green to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin or calling McCombs a "chicken-fried Moses" (as Barreiro has done in print) is insensitive, he reacts as Green did when someone questioned his clock management: He gets his back up. I'm guessing that in part this is because a segment of his KFANs aren't shy about baring their racial prejudices, and he's uncomfortable with those folks' allegiance, though his ratings depend on them.

Over the past two weeks, Barreiro has spent an inordinate amount of time preempting accusations of racism. Meanwhile, no one in the Vikings organization (including Green) has uttered a peep on the subject. Consciously or not, Barreiro is exploiting the topic for ratings and readership without grappling with the uncomfortable questions it raises.

Who's playing the race card? Barreiro should buy a mirror.


Editor's note: All the Rage will appear every other week. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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