Because I currently keep vampire hours, I was actually awake and listening to the radio at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday when the New York Mets announced that manager Willie Randolph was getting fired. Now I’ll be the first to admit I don’t follow baseball too closely outside of my Seattle Mariners and my favorite individual players (Dontrelle Willis, Ken Griffey Jr., C.C. Sabathia), so I haven’t been paying much attention to the Mets despite living in NYC. But I do know that when I heard Randolph had been let go I immediately remembered what he said earlier this season, about being criticized more harshly than other managers/coaches in pro sports because he’s Black. In that interview Randolph cited previous New York coaches Herm Edwards (Jets) and Isiah Thomas (Knicks) as victims of the same problem. And a few months back, ESPN.com’s Scoop Jackson wrote a column asking if Isiah was being given an inordinate amount of criticism compared to Pacers’ president Larry Bird, who has arguably done a similarly bad job managing his NBA franchise.
Is there any truth to it? Are Black coaches — or Blacks in any capacity within pro sports — judged more harshly and given less leeway than Whites? Of course when Randolph dropped his little verbal grenade, the mostly-White national media mostly stomped out that potential fire, mostly writing it off as the desperate attempt of a desperate, losing manager to gain some sympathy votes. And maybe they were right; again, I don’t watch the Mets enough to know how much blame Randolph deserves for their underachieving record. Personally, I think Randolph — just like Isiah and just like Herm — drew what probably seemed like heaping amounts of criticism more because he was working in New York and dealing with its ravenous media than because of race. But at the same time, I understand why he would think it’s the other way around.
Over the past two years I’ve been to a lot of Knicks games and heard Isiah Thomas raked over the coals by NY fans and ripped apart by NY media. Simple booing from the fans would have been the nicest thing; Thomas was also drowned in “Fire Isiah” chants at least once every game, and some of the stuff I’ve heard fans screaming at him isn’t even printable. Did Larry Brown get the same treatment when he led a garbage Knicks squad? Will Mike D’Antoni hear the same things Isiah heard if he can’t turn things around? My automatic response as a Black man says “No,” but I also wasn’t here for the LB era and I can’t rightfully judge what I’ve heard in Madison Square Garden up against my previous NBA arena experience, because the Seattle and New York fan bases are completely different. (Seattle fans are generally nice and never flat-out hate you unless they feel you screwed them over on your way out of town, i.e. A-Rod, or if your name is Kobe Bryant or Karl Malone.)
Why was Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weiss (White) given a 10-year contract extension for posting the same record that got ex-Notre Dame coach Ty Willingham (Black) fired? Why was ex-Green Bay Packers coach Ray Rhodes (Black) fired after going 8-8 in his first year with the team, while current coach Mike McCarthy (White) went 8-8 his first year and kept his job? (McCarthy led the Pack to a 13-3 record in Year 2.) These are questions worth asking.
No one can deny that, under Isiah Thomas’ coaching and front-office tenure, the Knicks were terrible. And no one can deny that — from putting the roster together to bad game management to fostering an overall depressing mood — plenty of that falls on Isiah’s shoulders. As much as I respect where he’s come from and loved his game when he played in the League, if anyone in pro sports deserved to be booed by fans and bashed by the media over the past two years, it was Isiah.
Was there a little extra on top of those boos and chants because Isiah is Black? I can’t tell you. But as every Black man and woman in America can testify, the thing about it is that we can never, with full certainty, answer those kind of questions with a “No.”