Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson turned an awards ceremony in his honor into a opportunity to engage mentors and friends in a discussion of civil rights and the African American struggle for equality in sports, on and off the playing field.
Johnson was honored Monday night by the California Chapter of the NAACP with a Living Legacy Award during a ceremony at Crocker Art Museum. In acknowledgment of the recognition, Johnson said he wanted to engage five close friends in the discussion.
Participating in the Civil Rights and Sports Symposium’s panel were former Major League Baseball managers Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel; sociologist and former UC Berkeley professor Harry Edwards; basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and former San Francisco Mayor and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
Each influenced Johnson greatly growing up and during his sports and political careers, he said.
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Johnson has emerged as a prominent voice in the national civil rights debate following violent police incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Cleveland. He has pushed for a more diverse police force in Sacramento and convened a series of town hall forums on police relations in the last year.
Violence, including that committed by blacks against blacks, must be addressed, panel members said. During the period that 6,800 American troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Edwards said, more than 27,000 young African Americans were killed in the United States.
With Johnson posing the questions and serving as moderator, the discussion ranged from what Edwards, a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers, thought about letting coach Jim Harbaugh go last December – a poor decision, he said – to weightier issues of paying college athletes and an influx of professional players from other countries joining U.S. baseball teams.
Baker, Manuel and Edwards said African Americans are losing ground in baseball, a game that offers greater longevity for athletes than football and basketball. Baker, who grew up in Carmichael, said baseball has become an expensive sport for youths, with pay-for-play teams, travel costs and bats costing $300. It now costs $3,000 to $5,000 per child to play baseball, he said.
Edwards, noting that he worked for a time as director of parks and recreation in Oakland, said that as white, middle-class residents left cities and moved to suburbs, they took resources with them. Urban sports and recreation programs, once a training ground for African American youths, deteriorated. Not only are programs lacking, he said, but parks where urban youths once played are dangerous places today.
In 1971, Edwards said, 21 percent of American Major League Baseball players were African American. “Now,” he said, “it’s 8 percent and declining.”
One reason for the decline, he said, is the influx of players from Latin American countries, like the Dominican Republic and Panama, which have academies that train youths for professional baseball careers.
“We can’t compete with that,” Edwards said.
Panel members also said it is time for colleges to pay their athletes. The NCAA is serving as a minor league for the National Basketball Association and National Football League, Abdul-Jabbar said. College football and basketball teams are money-makers for their institutions, and “the people who put the people in the seats,” he said, should be compensated.
Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.