Auburn President Dr. William L. Broun: No Heritage of Hate

BrounWith the renewed focus on the Confederate battle flag and what it symbolizes, schools and other public institutions in the South are also taking a look at their history.  Do colleges and universities, building a tradition of instilling the highest values, harbor in their past individuals who worked against principles of equality?  Do they honor these individuals by naming buildings after them?

Clemson is facing such a debate over the legacy of Benjamin Tillman. Faculty have demanded a building named after him be renamed, particularly in light of the recent calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds.

It’s a valid debate, and the answer is rarely simple — 100 percent in one direction or the other.  But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Take, for example, Auburn’s fourth president, Dr. William L. Broun, whom Broun Hall is named after.  Before coming to Auburn, the Virginia native fought in the Civil War.  Should Auburn be concerned?  It’s a valid question.  Let’s read the evidence.

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Broun was actually headmaster of a private school in the state when war broke out.  He did not serve in a combat position, but was superintendent of ordnance for the CSA army, at the rank of major.  He was later promoted to lieutenant colonel and named commandant of the Richmond arsenal.

Some war historians claim that Broun issued the last major command of the conflict — the order to blow up the arsenal before advancing armies could arrive, shortly before Lee’s surrender.

But what about Broun’s attitudes toward issues like slavery?  Did his views reflect the region’s racial hatred of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era?

We are fortunate that the library has a book of Broun’s life and words, assembled by his family after his death, on its shelves.  It’s an excellent starting point (and saves the hassle of going through his papers).  The book is titled “Dr. William L. Broun,” and its call number is LA2317 .B7A3.

Broun did in fact speak about the Civil War, on Memorial Day in 1891.  In recalling the discussions leading up to the war, Broun reminded his listeners of the personal turmoil he and members of the UVA community faced.  Theirs was the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in intellect and politics.

Broun told his audience, “Slavery was not the cause of the war; it was the occasion, not the cause.  It was not for silver and gold, not for slavery, not for property in any form, that your fathers suffered the hardships of four long years of war.”

He claimed, as many have since then, that the cause was “to maintain what they regarded the rights of the States.”

Broun did not leave it there, however.  Later in his speech, he declared, “But in the wisdom of an omniscient Providence the question of the right of secession, thus referred to the arbitration of the field, was decided amid the thunders of artillery irrevocably and forever.”

In his opinion, the United States would continue as a sovereign unified country —
one people, one nation, under one flag.”

So while Broun would seem to side with those who sidestep the slavery issue, he definitely saw secession as a dead issue, post-war.  But did Broun have personal experience with slaveholding?

Broun and his father-in-law, Dr. George Fleming, bought a plantation in Houston County, Virginia, during the war, and Broun moved his family there.  Apparently Dr. Fleming was a slaveowner, and his slaves were sent to the plantation.

“When my wife reached there she found the old servants that knew her well, and they were all glad to see her,” Broun wrote.  “They regarded us as their protectors after the war was over, and I hired them for the next year, preparatory to planting cotton.”

While these can still be problematic words to some, they are certainly preferable to the racial hostility expressed in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Alabama politicians, some of whom have buildings named after them.

Beyond that, nothing of Broun’s that is included in the book — in correspondent or memoir form — addresses race-related topics.  He does show a progressive spirit, advocating for the education of women at Auburn during one non-dated baccalaureate address and does so without condescension.

Broun’s most enduring and visible contribution to the campus is the reconstructed Samford Hall, which was built after its predecessor burned in 1887.  He also was behind the renaming of the University from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical to Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

But his most important contribution might have been his role, as one of the South’s most respected educators, in building Auburn’s academic reputation.  When he died in 1902 at age 72 — while getting ready to go to work — colleagues and journalists hailed his life and work.

In discussing Broun’s life, it must be acknowledged that other building namesakes do not fare as well, on balance, particularly those named after Alabama governors.

The racist speeches of Gov. B.B. Comer (1907-1911), for whom Comer Hall is named, are easily found, as is his family’s usage of leased convict labor — an inhumane system that he perpetuated as governor.

And Gov. David Bibb Graves (1927-1931, 1935-1939), for whom Graves Amphitheatre is named, though progressive in his philosophy, used his Klan leadership to political advantage and blocked his attorney general from prosecuting floggers, though he resigned his Klan membership soon after he was elected governor.

But their legacies deserve a deeper treatment, and they are not as closely tied to Auburn as Broun was.

When Dr. William L. Broun’s life and legacy are examined, it’s wrong to categorize him with the Benjamin Tillmans.  True, he was in many ways a product of his times, but his times — and Auburn — were better because of him.


Can Jason Whitlock Coach The Undefeated?

Note: ESPN announced today (June 12) that Jason Whitlock would step down as head of The Undefeated project.  The details are in this article by Rich Sandomir of The New York Times.

It’s an oversimplification worth heeding: Journalists should never be in charge of anything.  Don’t ever say to a columnist, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you do something other than criticize?”  Too risky.  We can organize words, sentences and paragraphs into an article.  Beyond that, we struggle to organize a BLT sandwich.

Kidding, mainly, but there is a grain of truth in the above.  Often, one of the worst things you can do to a gifted journalist is to turn him or her into an editor.

For decades, however, that was the only way for good writers to get better pay and promotion.  The results were often disastrous.  A chaotic office and the loss of a top-notch writer.

We see the same phenomenon in sports.  How many championship teams are led by former superstar athletes?  Popovich? Belichick? Meyer? Krzyzewski?

All of this is a long way around to talk about Greg Howard’s takedown of Jason Whitlock on Deadspin.  Howard generated plenty of heat talking about what actually are two separate issues: Whitlock’s competency in leading a major media project, and his personal philosophy of race.

Mashing up the two in a longer essay implies a connection.  With the negativity Howard applies to both, the problems might seem to multiply exponentially.

But these are two separate, unrelated issues.  A top-flight media manager might be unable to keep up with this better writers and come off as a lightweight, even as his or her own publication features those writers generating thought-provoking copy.

An incompetent media project manager might have a well-articulated philosophy on controversial topics that leaves others saying, “If the boss is so smart, why are we in so much chaos here?.”

But neither scenario is dependent on the other.  And Whitlock seems to be the latter — at least as a media project manager.

The reason Whitlock, like most popular writers, struggles as an editor is that the two roles require different tool kits, and those too are often unrelated.  A writer must direct passion and focus toward his or her personal projects and see them as an extension of self and worth the expenditure of concentrated energy.

An editor, on the other hand, again to oversimplify, is judged by the success brought to other writers and their products in creating a unified product.

To me, the most effective editors are “servant leaders” — subsuming their egos to serve their writers by creating an environment where those writers can succeed, knowing that the project (and the editor) will benefit as a result.

When an editor becomes as central to a project as Whitlock perceived himself, then the project serves the editor, rather than vice versa.  Passion is needed in any media project, even in the front office, but too much sends it over the top of the bell curve, and effectiveness decreases.

And for someone like Whitlock, his personal ebbs and flows apparently could not be mediated by skillful leadership when it involved other writers and editors.

Managing writers is like herding high-maintenance cats with an ego.  All of us remember editors who inspired us — a combination of tough love, exhortation and red ink, sweetened with a protective instinct that would allow no one to hammer except the editor.

Any editor who does so successfully probably goes home at the end of the day and needs a good workout at the gym or the bar to decompress.

Obviously, the proof in the pudding will be how long The Undefeated’s ingredients stay in the mix.  Pay alone will not keep them; they will need a sense that they are crucial to the mission.  Let’s be fair: It could be that Whitlock still can pull it off.  The delays are troubling, but not fatal.

The solution is for Whitlock to hand over editorial control to an editor who shares his editorial vision for what Undefeated can be, but who also has the authority to run the project.  Whitlock’s leadership and inspiration still fit in, but filtered through someone with authority over the writers.

I won’t address Howard’s take on Whitlock’s philosophy, because it’s simply a debate, a difference of opinion.  Howard’s criticisms of Whitlock are deep and thoughtful, and maybe Whitlock’s approach to race is a dangerous retread of a previous age, but that is not the danger game on the schedule for The Undefeated.

If Whitlock were a better manager, The Undefeated would be sure to attract, motivate and publish the best writers, and their thoughts, not Whitlock’s would carry the day, as they should, in thinking through the tough issues Howard raises.

So in that sense, Howard is right.  If Whitlock cannot manage the Undefeated so that it retains a staff that consistently produces top-notch copy, it will have to rely on not only his vision, but also his production to power The Undefeated.

And I don’t think ESPN is interested in a glorified blog.

Sports Media Are Still Racist Against Black Athletes

First published by  You can link to it here.

Bradley Zimanek, a Montgomery Advertiser columnist, stirred quite the dust-up early this college football season when he suggested that ESPN personality Andre Ware favored Blake Sims as Alabama quarterback because both are black. The column caused a great outcry at the Worldwide Leader and even prompted Ware to go on The Paul Finebaum Show and deny the claim.

The column is flimsy at best, perpetuating the stereotype that black people are monolothic, even robotic in their behavior. One wonders if the author would contemplate whether he, in turn, would favor Sims’ competition Jake Coker simply because he and Coker are both white. Such a statement would be ridiculous, of course. Or would it?

If you believe the research, the problem isn’t broadcasters like Ware lobbying for black athletes. The problem is white broadcasters and sports writers favoring white athletes over black ones. And it has been happening for decades.

It’s not overt. No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback. Rather—and this situation has improved recently— the overwhelmingly white sports media consistently uses terms that enhance the image of white athletes while dismissing black athletes as being over-reliant on their natural gifts. White athletes are smart, hardworking, team players. Black athletes are freaks and beasts who get by on their natural gifts as opposed to their work ethic, which perpetuates the broader stereotype of black people as lazy.

The earliest research on this subject emerged as pro football solidified its hold on TV audiences in the 1970s. A 1977 study by Raymond Rainville and Edward McCormick (Extent of Covert Racial Prejudice in Pro Football Announcers’ Speech) that analyzed NFL broadcasts matched players of different races according to their stats (fantasy football meets content analysis!). They found that white players were more likely to be praised for good plays, while black players were more likely to be criticized for bad plays.

Almost 20 years later, James Rada of Ithaca College studied NFL broadcaster comments, in his study, Color Blind-sided: Racial Bias in Network Television’s Coverage of Professional Football Games. He found that when they described individual players, they would highlight intellect-related qualities for white players, but physical qualities (particularly their appearance) for black players.

In a 2005 follow-up study—Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports—Rada looked at college football and basketball games. He again compared comments, but went deeper. His follow-up study actually found that positive comments about the intellect of players were equally distributed. Negative comments about intellect, however, were more often aimed at black players. As for comments about character, again, white athletes received a disproportionate share of positive comments, while black players were more likely to be the focus of negative character comments. And when the athletes were the subject of human interest stories—well, you can imagine which ones got the negative stories.

The situation has improved over the years. Andrew Billings (now at Alabama, then at Clemson) looked at broadcast descriptions of NFL quarterbacks in 2002—a time when black quarterbacks were not only emergent, but also prominent (Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick). In Depicting the Quarterback in Black and White: A Content Analysis of College and Professional Broadcast Commentary, Billings found that while many descriptors were equally distributed, physical skill was the main difference. If a black quarterback succeeded, it was attributed to his physical gifts. (Interestingly, if a white quarterback failed, the same factor was cited—but on the debit side.)

So what’s the big deal, you might ask. If all this talk is stealthy and unintentional we can resist the message, right? Not exactly. The very power of TV exposure is in its long-term subtlety. Considering the society-wide ritual that sports viewing has become, we can safely assume frequent long-term viewing, which means years and decades of having stereotypes quietly drilled into the American subconscious. While it’s tough to measure such impact directly, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

And don’t think the problem is going away quickly. This kind of racial profiling still emerges in recent studies, and the phenomenon even happens within college sports information offices. A 2010 study led by George Cunningham of Texas A&M (Race Ideology Perpetuated: Media Representations of Newly Hired Football Coaches) looked at releases announcing the hires of new assistant coaches.

The releases were likely to describe white coaches as great strategists, while black coaches were noted for their recruiting skills and relationships with players. Little wonder then that black coaches have a difficult time landing head coaching jobs. The coaching stereotype implies that to hire a minority coach is equivalent to handing the asylum over to the inmates.

Perhaps the recent success of black coaches such as Mike Tomlin, David Shaw, and Kevin Sumlin will finally put such stereotypes to rest. But even Sumlin faced whispers that his coaching success was attributable to talented quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel. Maybe A&M’s success this year will put the final nail in that coffin—Michigan fans certainly are bristling at reports that Sumlin was passed over in favor of Brady Hoke. But at this point, the stereotypes are still kicking around.

Further, realize that these research results are not a byproduct of cherry picking by agenda-driven researchers. Most of these content analysis projects are rigorous, coding many hours of game broadcasts over a broad time span. The data consists of thousands of broadcaster comments —and those folks talk quite a bit. As for specific coding decisions—what’s considered positive and negative, what’s an intellect comment vs. a physicality comment—that is decided early on, and often more than one person codes the content.

Readers, of course, are free to reject the findings of any academic based on their own biases. Climate change isn’t man made, right? Actually, facts are facts and the fact is that black people were once banned from professional and college sports. While participation has equalized—exceeded equalization in some sports—the inheritance of centuries of mistreatment of black people in America endures. One of the many remaining obstacles to true equality—justice even— is lingering in the way people talk about race, even when they don’t realize they are talking about race. The media isn’t responsible for all of this, but it is responsible for closing the gap in its treatment of black athletes.