Personal Foul

Michael Dvorak

America's preoccupation with race is both transcended and magnified in sport, so perhaps it's no wonder that things have been getting tense lately both on and off the field. Nationally, the latest blowup came when black pro basketball player Latrell Sprewell was given an unprecedented year-long suspension for assaulting his white coach, setting off a heated debate over thuggery and lack of due process. Locally, Gopher basketball coach Clem Haskins--fresh from winning a Big Ten championship and being named NCAA Coach of the Year--was chided for hypocrisy and excessive pride after one of his players was convicted of domestic assault; meanwhile Vikings coach Dennis Green accused team owners and sportswriters of conspiring to remove him.

These and other matters felt like interesting agenda items for a City Pages roundtable of black sportswriters. By the time schedules permitted the meeting to take place, however, the headlines made it obvious that the conversation would have one dominant topic: the increasingly stormy tenure of coach Green, the second black head coach in the NFL and the anointed bogeyman of sports talk in the nation's whitest metropolitan area.

As far back as 1994, Green stated on the radio that the media hated his guts and that he felt the same way about the media. It's been downhill from there. By the end of the '97 season PiPress columnist Bob Sansevere had called Green "the cockroach of NFL coaches, and that is meant to be a compliment," and the Star Tribune's Dan Barreiro had likened him to the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. For his part, Green told ABC correspondent Lesley Visser that three unnamed Twin Cities columnists and at least one member of the Vikings board would not rest until he was gone.

It's one of the enduring features of celebrity media battles that after a few years, it's hard to remember what sparked the controversy in the first place. In Green's case, much of the talk about "off-the-field troubles" goes back to Super Bowl Sunday 1995, when the Star Tribune published a lengthy front-page article revealing that the Vikings had paid $150,000 to settle a sexual-harassment claim against an assistant coach. According to the Strib, an affidavit by a former Vikings employee also detailed "sexually inappropriate behavior" by Green. Less than two weeks later, the Strib reported that a former employee at Stanford University, where Green previously coached, had threatened to add sexual-harassment charges against Green to an employment-discrimination suit she had filed against the university. The suit was settled before any further charges were filed. To this day, Green has never been formally charged with sexual harassment.

In September 1996, KSTP-TV reported that in 1992 Green had paid for an abortion for a 39-year-old woman because he feared the baby would ruin his career. Green and the woman had previously sued each other over her claims that he had broken a contract of confidentiality and caused her emotional distress by discussing the matter with a third party. A judge eventually dismissed the suits and fined the woman's attorney $10,000. Green has referred to the matter as a "regrettable incident."

The latest controversy involving Green is a result of the coach's own pronouncements. In his book No Room for Crybabies, published in September, Green threatened to sue members of the Vikings board for trying to replace him with former University of Minnesota coach Lou Holtz. In lieu of a cash settlement, Green suggested that he be given a share of the franchise. When confronted about this by the media, he claimed he was "just thinking out loud."

It was against this backdrop that four veteran black journalists convened over pizza in the City Pages conference room during the day of New Year's Eve. They were Ray Richardson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Charles Hallman and Kwame McDonald of the Minneapolis Spokesman, and Larry Fitzgerald, who has had shows on KFAN and KMOJ and writes a column in the Spokesman. The conversation ran for more than two hours and continued intermittently over the following week.

Like any good discussion, this one took an unexpected course. Though at least two of the four participants have criticized Green in the past, this time they were unanimous in defending him (almost as unanimous as their counterparts have been in their attacks). Their reasons for taking this stance--varied, complex, and at times surprising--propelled the conversation beyond water-cooler platitudes. What follows is the other side to the Green story, the one rarely, if ever, found in the mainstream media.

CITY PAGES: When I listened to KFAN right after Minnesota beat the Giants, as many callers seemed disappointed that Dennis Green might come back as were happy that the Vikings won a playoff game. Why do you think this guy is disliked so much?  

LARRY FITZGERALD: I think part of it is because they didn't have him as their first choice from the beginning. It is well documented what happened the first day he was here, with Sid Hartman and everything.

RAY RICHARDSON: I was there that day. I have been in this business 18 years and I have never seen a journalist act that way in my life. Sid stood up in a press conference and asked [Vikings owner] Roger Headrick, "Why didn't you hire Pete Carroll?" Because Carroll had been in town before as a member of the Vikings' staff, he naturally was Sid's guy. I felt bad for Dennis because this should have been his crowning moment; the second black coach in the [modern history of the] NFL, and he has got to face that the first day here. And I know that left a bad taste in his mouth.

CP: But it still seemed as if the media and Dennis got along pretty well at first.

RICHARDSON: Let me run down some politics to you. In this business, we have to schmooze a little bit. I don't want to say kiss ass, but you've got to be in that little cocktail circuit. When a new coach comes to town, columnists and other writers like to be able to sit down and get to be buddy-buddy with him. Well, Dennis was doing that the first year. He used to sit around on a Monday after the game and do a "play of the week" highlight and diagram it on the video screen. It was his way of letting people know he could be personable and cooperative.

But even when Dennis was schmoozing, he didn't really say a lot. He didn't tell them the same kind of stuff that maybe Jerry Burns or Mike Lynn would tell them. So that started a little rift already. Sid or Bob [Sansevere] might think, "He's not giving me that much insight. He might throw me a little bone or a crumb but he isn't throwing me any four-course meals off the record," that kind of stuff. And that probably started this whole madness. Because they don't feel like they can be in the social club on the inside. Jerry Burns would go out drinking with guys and and say stuff, just spilling his guts. Dennis just ain't that kind of guy.

CP: But the media eventually ripped into Burnsie too.

FITZGERALD: Not the same. It is personal in Minnesota with respect to Dennis. When Dan Barreiro called him Dennis Amin Dada and Denny Dada, it almost made me throw up. You are talking about a guy from Uganda who is a dictator, who killed people savagely. When you call yourself a professional journalist and that is the reference you make to a person of color, if you find someone in Africa who was a murderer and then say, "Ha ha ha, this is cute," then you have got to say, "Wait a minute." And when Bob Sansevere says Dennis Green reminds him of a cockroach, and when [Strib sports columnist] Patrick Reusse calls Dennis Green delusional--it all started with Sid and then goes on. Sid sort of kicks the door open and then makes an about face and becomes the politician, saying, "Green is really doing a good job," while all the others take the baseball bats and swing away.

RICHARDSON: I am sort of in the middle of this because I work for one of the two main papers in town, and I am having a hard time with my loyalties and my professional work ethics. I am going to be a journalist first, but I am still a black man, and it has been very difficult for me to see Dennis get roasted like he's been roasted.

Me and Bob [Sansevere] always considered each other fairly good friends. But that is strained because I know what he is doing now. I know Bob hates Dennis, hates him with a passion. And for two reasons: One, because he thinks Dennis is a bad person, and secondly because Dennis is black and he's got power, which is almost like a white man's worst fear. It is something a lot of journalists can't accept.

FITZGERALD: Keep that train of thought. The personal issue is that Bob's wife used to be a cheerleader with the Vikings, and they let her go before they were married. So he picked up on being angry at the Viking organization and carried [that] into the Dennis Green regime. Now if there is an editor over in St. Paul who has half a brain and he is aware of that type of scenario, you would think that he would know there had to be a small semblance of a conflict of interest there. Yet he has allowed this man to write his opinion about the team on a daily basis. And of course he also uses that excellent forum on KQ.  

RICHARDSON: We deal with this all the time: If I was in that meeting where Bob was writing about the cockroach and Denny, I would have said, "Hell no." And yet when I talked to my sports editor about the cockroach thing, he thought it was okay; he said, "Well I don't think it is that bad, I've seen worse than that."

But then again, I'm going to a white guy, who probably has got the same thought process that Bob has. Now I don't think he's as bad a guy as Bob is, but it didn't bother him as much as it bothered me.

There are no blacks in management in the [sports] media here. We have no black sports editors and the Tribune has a black copy editor in sports, but that's about as high as it goes. Without a minority perception in the decision-making process, this kind of stuff will go on forever.

CHARLES HALLMAN: I listened to KFAN too, and it was amazing to me; the big thing on that station before the Giants game was that coach Green had never won a playoff game. Then he wins one, and it was like it made them angry. I wasn't here when Bud Grant was here, but he didn't win any Super Bowl games--never won one. Yet he is considered a great coach.

KWAME McDONALD: You might want to check on the record of black coaches in the NFL versus the record of white coaches, since the time black coaches first got hired. And you will find that it is around a 55 percent winning record for black coaches.

RICHARDSON: But how often do we see the black coaches get the toughest jobs? They get teams that are in shambles and have to rebuild, and they have to do it much quicker than the white coaches. But the black coach who fails will never get another job.

HALLMAN: I don't like to use the "R" word because it is too easy to make excuses, but we all know it is there. We know that for a black coach, it takes longer to get there and requires much less time to lose that job. Larry Bird walks into the NBA with no coaching job experience, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about how he wants to be a coach--well what's this guy talking about? But you don't say nothing about Larry Bird.

RICHARDSON: There is almost no recycling of black coaches in the NFL. That is why Dennis's case is so magnified if he coaches somewhere next year. It is to his credit that if things break down for him he can be hired by someone else.

The thing is, the Vikings have turned their backs on Dennis too. That front office is not always behind him. If it wasn't for Roger Headrick, he'd be out of here now. They have stopped trying to sell the marketing plan of that franchise because of Dennis.

I have never seen an NFL head coach not have a TV or radio show in a major medium before--never. Even John McKay when Tampa Bay was brutal had a regular television and radio show. But Channel 11 backed off of Dennis when he started having his problems, and KFAN dropped his show, and even when the Vikings switched over to 'CCO, they didn't want to do a show with him. If it wasn't for Larry doing the show on KMOJ, Dennis would have no outlet at all. And the Vikings didn't even want to put spots on KMOJ to try and sell tickets in the summertime. That to me spoke volumes for what Dennis is dealing with; not even his own family over there wants to do anything.

FITZGERALD: Part of it is because some of the people in that Viking organization were a part of the good old days, when Mike Lynn was running things. They can see the changes that have been made since Green was head coach. There are a lot of black faces in the Viking headquarters now, where before there was only Frank Gilliam. When Mike Lynn traded away all of his first-round picks so he could keep the money in the pockets of Vikings ownership and could blame the coach and the players for not winning, Frank Gilliam had to live with that pressure and go out and draft players in the late rounds. But not until Dennis Green came here did Frank Gilliam become a vice president of the Minnesota Vikings.  

CP: A lot of people would argue that Dennis has brought this on himself, doing things like threatening to sue his bosses for talking about replacing him. After all, people talk about replacing coaches all the time, black coaches and white coaches.

FITZGERALD: For Denny, it's about his credibility with his players. If you take that credibility away from him, what does he have? Absolutely nothing. So when you have one of 10 board members who happens to be friends with Lou Holtz go out and talk to Lou--"Look, we can set it up through leaks that it looks like you are going to Minnesota because Denny is losing and we are tired of him"--I know to many writers that is just a joke. But not with Dennis Green. This is serious business. Lou Holtz took it seriously. I read the letter of apology he sent to Dennis.

McDONALD: About the lawsuit--see, I don't think that was such a bad idea for him to say that. It is kind of like the good old American way is to try to own something. And if you feel that people in any way have done you wrong and if there is any legal redress, then you should use it. If he really wanted to do it he would have gone ahead without writing about it.

FITZGERALD: In his book he pointed out that the Vikings have been for sale for a year. And not until Dennis Green wrote that did Minnesota wake up and realize, "Oh my goodness, the Vikings have been for sale." People don't realize that he did them a favor.

CP: What about the conspiracy theory? He said three columnists and a member of the Vikings' board are trying to get rid of him. If you say that, then I want to hear: Who are they and what is your proof for that?

FITZGERALD: I've talked to a member of the Vikings' front office who said there was a meeting with the columnists where the team asked them to be fair and ease up in what they write about Dennis. And the columnists basically said no, that they weren't going to write anything positive about Denny until Denny is out of town. Now can you prove that is a conspiracy, with times and dates and everything? Probably not.

HALLMAN: There is still that defense mechanism where if you have been cornered, you feel you have got to fight back. Maybe you're right, he should have said these are the people who did it. But I can see why he didn't because he has never read anything positive [about himself].

CP: There was a Steve Harvey show where he said white people are always stunned when they get fired, but black people are just waiting for it to happen. Is that part of it--the mentality that they are going to try and get me?

HALLMAN: If you have been told all your life you can't win, becoming a football or basketball coach doesn't erase that. Somebody questioned you in school, can you do this work? If you go to college, people think you got in not because of achievement but affirmative action. And this gets magnified in a high-profile position like a coach; the pressure is intensified and you get more leery. I may think that if you ask me a question, you are probably questioning my ability and my qualifications. I don't care if you have even asked it nicely, I'm going to answer you in a way different than I would if you had gotten to know me as a person.

[White people] can walk around in this world all the time and nobody knows who they are. But every day we walk out the door, people see us--they see a Dennis Green--and the first thing they see is a person of color. Every time you take a step they are looking at you a different way. You can call it paranoia, but we live through that every day. I can go into a store today in a three-piece suit and I'll get questions about whether I have enough money.

McDONALD: The other day I spoke to the police academy in St. Paul about community concerns. And the first thing I said was: "Where I'm coming from, there has been nothing in terms of my life experiences that has encouraged me to trust white people. Over the years I have begun to trust some white individuals that I have had some experiences with, but that trust won't be automatic. We go in expecting certain things and can get thrown off-guard when white people don't act with discrimination."

And we can get lulled into a level of trust. Then, a crisis of confidence occurs and you come to expect this white person to stand up for you and he doesn't. That happens far too many times to too many black people.  

CP: Do you think it happened to Dennis Green?

FITZGERALD: It could have. The last I've seen, Dennis Green has not been charged with anything. He hasn't spent any time in jail, hasn't been convicted of any crimes and he hasn't made any payments. So there is no backdrop for it, no recounting. There is nobody who has gone back and said, "We may have made a mistake on that one; we may have had, as Johnny Cochran said, a rush to judgement." When you are stained, how are you going to wipe that stain away? If you are a head football coach you can't.

RICHARDSON: Whenever you are in a position of power as an African American, you've got to be squeaky clean because you are going to be held to a higher standard than white people in the same position. Dennis has always had a successful program here, but the minute things started to go a little south for him, the perception of him changed real quickly, much faster than it did for people like Jerry Burns.

CP: What is Dennis Green's level of support in the black community now?

FITZGERALD: What do you mean by support? You want people to throw a parade? Somebody asked me this question before; it is like, "Larry, tell me how black people think." Let me tell you something, black people really wanted to see Dennis Green win a playoff game too.

CP: But I'm talking about as a man.

McDONALD: I think he is more universally supported than any other black person in this state. And I say that because of a couple of things. First, he comes here a black [head coach] and that is already 100 percent. And then he has to put up with this stuff from white people. It is like, a part of Louis Farrakhan's appeal to the black community is because he, quote, stands up to the white man. And for some people, that is enough; he doesn't have to be right.

HALLMAN: In a bigger market like New York or Detroit, the community can provide a Green or a Haskins with more support, much more than here. In Detroit, the president of the NAACP would have as much clout as Sid Hartman; if he says leave Green alone, people would more likely leave Green alone. Here, I'm not sure people even know who the head of the NAACP is.

CP: Will he stay in this town?

FITZGERALD: He's got a contract for another year. Who knows? People talked about him never winning a playoff game. Well, in Washington they just gave a new contract to a coach who has never even gotten his team in the playoffs for four years.

RICHARDSON: People can accept it if it's because he can't do the job: Fine, get somebody else. But if Dennis isn't coaching this team next season, it won't be because he can't do the job, it will be personal stuff.

FITZGERALD: When Tony Dungy was here, people said, "Look, fire Denny and keep Tony Dungy and that proves that we're not racist because Tony is black and Dennis is black." They like Tony and feel that they can control Tony, have known him as a player and feel they know him as a coach. They know that he is a Christian and that he comes from a different background than Dennis Green; didn't lose his mother and his father before he was 12 years old. So they can go out and make that kind of a statement that this proves they're not racist. I think it stands right there for everybody to see.

RICHARDSON: I'm on the fence with this. I know what he has gone through, but I would rather see him leave, just for the peace of mind, and start over. Move on to another environment where you can really function. It is hard as hell to try and work in a job where there are forces working against you inside and outside. Now to his credit--and we are seeing a lot of his development as a kid growing up--he has a tough mentality about standing up. But how far does he want to carry it; how much can he stand and handle and at what point is it enough of saying I am a man and you can't break me down?

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