Diversity & discernment: lessons from the gridiron

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff Articles, Education Leave a Comment

By Dr. John M. Livingston | Medical Policy Adviser

I grew up in Ohio in the 1960s. In Ohio and western Pennsylvania, football was, and remains today, a religion. I was lucky enough in the late ‘60s and early ‘70’s to play for two state championship high school football teams and one NCAA Division III championship football team. My high school team, Upper Arlington, was completely segregated. My college team, Wittenburg University, was one of the first to be completely integrated. 

It was during this time that the social milieu of our country was changing rapidly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Vietnam War were very much becoming a reality on midwestern college campuses. Racial strife, and ultimately progress, cropped up everywhere: Rosa Parks; the integration of all-white institutions of higher learning in America’s south; the first black football player, Nat Northington for Kentucky, played in a South East Conference football game in 1967; the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. These were the backdrop and nidus of campus unrest that resulted in the confrontations of campus protestors—not all of them students—and National Guardsmen at Kent State and Antioch College in Ohio.

By the end of our third practice on our first day at Wittenburg, I was so exhausted and tired and homesick, I didn’t know if I could stick it out.

We had our first full scrimmage on the third day and I looked up in our huddle and there were four black faces playing with me on the offensive side of the ball. Those practices and scrimmages were grueling and as the pre-season practices wore on I found myself, a freshman, playing on the scout team and getting manhandled by superior and older varsity players. 

Thanks to your shared experience of that difficult camp, we were truly teammates. All of us, irrespective of race or origin, had triumphed together. We became fast friends. Many of us are still friends and that shared experience remains the basis of our mutual respect and admiration for each other.

The only other places in my life where I have witnessed true respect across racial, sexual, ethnic, and cultural divides have been in the military and in the civilian operating rooms where I have worked. I spent 16 years in the U.S. Navy as a physician and surgeon and the only thing that mattered to me about my scrub team or the people that helped me take care of my patients’ post-op was their competence and their work ethic.

I believe I have seen subtle forms of bigotry in the medical community when physicians have made their religious views—usually Jewish and Christian—known to their colleagues, but that never occurred in clinical environments. Instead, such bigotry almost always involved administrative and political issues—abortion and end-of-life rights of patients.

In my opinion, to develop a community where mutual respect is the norm, there must be shared work, shared values, and shared common goals and experiences. These aren’t things one learns via book pages or assimilates in an eight-hour sensitivity training session.

We misuse the terms discrimination and disparity. Defining differences and disparities amongst individuals is not wrong. In my football huddle, there were linemen who were different in their skill sets from running backs or receives receivers. They had a disparity of talents and the coaches had to discriminate how best to deploy their individual skill sets. Because we all have different talents and life experiences how those are deployed in different settings should be a function of the setting where those talents should be used. 

When Nat Northington played his first game for Kentucky in 1967 and when Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell first played for Alabama, they weren’t recruited to satisfy a condition of diversity. They were recruited because they were the best players Alabama could find. And because of them, everyone on the team was made better—whites and blacks. They were recruited because of their skill set, not the color of their skin. Diversity was the result, not the cause of their success.

In medicine, law, and the STEM disciplines, we are seeing improvements in diversity. Particularly in the arena of basic sciences and medicine, this move toward diversity should be the result of talents and skillsets brought to the workplace and not be caused by a policy that doesn’t put skills, talents, and experiences at the head of the cart. 

Improving math and reading skills and funding teachers that can improve those skills will produce a more diversified student body and workforce. Let’s spend our money on teachers, and coaches that teach those skills. Let’s not spend on diversity specialists that see diversity as a means to an end. 

Disparity is quantitative and because we are all different there will always be disparities.

Discrimination is qualitative and is harder to define. We all understand, though, that it is evil when used to limit or discount an individual’s talents and skills. It can be a force for good when it maximizes abilities, talents, and life experience resulting in improved opportunities. 

Deciphering between the various types of discrimination and the difference between discriminations and disparities is very important when discussing these issues.

As the SEC celebrates the 50-year anniversary of integrating their football programs, let’s not forget the lessons learned as we march forward to a more inclusive world.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, the Bible reads. 

“Love thy neighbor as thy self”, Jesus taught. 

Are we still allowed to teach those virtues in public schools today?

These two statements should be the bases for any study of diversity or inclusiveness.