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Racism touches the Miami Dolphins

"People are looking at my boys like they are going to take something, because their purse is sitting on their shopping cart. I get a little offended. Not because I'm an NFL player and I have money, but just that it's a stereotype."
December 16, 2003

Sometimes, when James McKnight shops for cereal with his two sons, he senses they are the ones getting checked out. He isn't wearing his uniform, so no one knows he plays receiver for the Dolphins. Nor would they know the 31-year-old has a wife, college degree, financial stability and numerous business interests.

They only know he is black. That and this report from The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel's Ethan J. Skolnick

And that his sons, ages 11 and 2, are too.

"You walk by people, they look at you, they clench their purses," he said. "People are looking at my boys like they are going to take something, because their purse is sitting on their shopping cart. I get a little offended. Not because I'm an NFL player and I have money, but just that it's a stereotype. And my boys don't know what's going on, but it's just the fact that I know. So I just tell them, let's go, and we'll just leave from wherever we're at."

Maybe you assumed modern black athletes, most wealthy and superficially beloved, would have left racism behind. Many feel they have, at least the overt kind. But the Dolphins interviewed for this story characterized what they encounter as more subtle. Not the thunderbolts that have made recent headlines. More of a steady drizzle they try to ignore. As they keep moving.

Monday night, the Eagles stop in South Florida -- a reminder of the many recent race issues in sports. The racially charged death threat Maurice Clarett's mother received after the Ohio State star's suspension. The racist pamphlets a Colorado group distributed during early stages of the Kobe Bryant case. The comments by black NFL star Warren Sapp (comparing his league to a "slave master") and black NBA star Rasheed Wallace (using a racial slur to describe the "dumb" players his league sought). Sylvester Croom breaking the SEC's football coaching barrier. Calls for more black NFL coaches.

And the threatening letters sent to prominent black players, including the Dolphins' Jason Taylor and the Eagles' Freddie Mitchell, because of racially mixed relationships. Taylor, who has declined interviews to avoid inspiring copycats, will spend Monday night chasing another at the center of a race-related storm this season. In September, then-ESPN analyst Rush Limbaugh said struggling Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because the media wanted a black quarterback to do well. Limbaugh was fired, and McNabb has since led Philadelphia to a 10-3 record, widely admired for staying upbeat and not lashing back. Many Dolphins are among the admirers. That and this report from The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel's Ethan J. Skolnick

"McNabb has come out of this brighter than ever," said Oronde Gadsden, 32.

"It's all on how you bounce back," McNabb said. "I think I've shown I can bounce back."

Asked if he considered the Limbaugh controversy an isolated incident or symbolic of a larger issue, McNabb said: "I don't know. I'll leave it up to you guys to answer that."

Some of the Dolphins' 39 active black players answered through their experiences.

Adewale Ogunleye, a New York native of Nigerian heritage, heard something far less ambiguous than Limbaugh's comment in October in Jacksonville. It came from a Jaguars fan before the game. "Dude called me a spearchucker," said the 26-year-old Indiana University graduate. "I was thinking, like, this is the year 2003, and I was taken aback by it. If anyone saw me after I got one of my sacks, I kind of went over to the corner, and I was talking some junk with one of the fans. So it bothered me."

Randy McMichael, 24, faced difficulties growing up in Georgia, but for him, racism now is not "in your face, but it's hidden. We're young, we're African-Americans, and we drive around in nice cars, have nice houses, and people still look at us every day like, 'What do they do?' Because we don't wear suits like a lawyer or a business person. ... We stick out in Mercedes, Hummers, Escalades. 'Well, is he a drug dealer? Is he a rapper? He must be doing something illegal to get where he is.' It's more or less whispers and stares. Then some people do come up to you, 'Well, what do you do for a living?' And you're like, 'Well, I play football.' And they go, 'Oh, OK.'"

Patrick Surtain, 27, recalled an incident in Fort Lauderdale one year ago, when he believes the police targeted his Mercedes-Benz truck. Surtain's friend was driving, and an officer told them to go faster. Surtain, who was in the back seat, says they did, but their music "was up a little bit." Surtain says the officer acted "like a jerk," gave them tickets for disturbing the peace and slowing traffic and "reached for his gun, which wasn't really called for."

Many Dolphins find themselves also adjusting to living in mostly white neighborhoods.

"You have people walking down the road, and you speak and say hello, and they don't say anything," McKnight said. "What, I don't belong in this neighborhood? I don't deserve to live here? And that type of stuff irritates you, because you are raising your family there. ... The more things change, they stay the same. When are you going to get past that?"

Rob Burnett, 36, would prefer shouts to what McMichael calls the "whispers and stares." If everything was out in the open, Burnett said, "at least you know where you stand."

He is among the players who senses he is in different standing when his identity is apparent. McKnight said "you can do no wrong" at a team event. Surtain said strangers are more relaxed and interactive after they overhear someone identify him. "Totally," Burnett said. That and this report from The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel's Ethan J. Skolnick

Burnett recalled one recent elevator trip: watching a woman fidget, pondering that anyone that paranoid should stay home. "I'm not going to take your purse," he recalled thinking. "I don't even want to talk to you. I'm just trying to get to the fourth floor, you know. That hurt a little bit, for a second. I kind of made a joke to myself. But when you really think about it, it hurts, it hurts, man. Because I'm a human, just like she is. I was raised by parents, just like she was. I'm a citizen of this country. I've got a college degree. It sucks."

Yet, Burnett guessed if he were on the field, she might cheer rather than fidget.

"I don't think people realize what they're doing," Burnett said. "They look at us, number one, like we're bigger than life. And we're not. We're just humans, but we have certain talents. And two, they don't see white and black. They see their team colors. They don't necessarily see the person under the helmet or in the uniform. Until the uniform is off. And then somebody gets in the elevator, and they are grabbing their purse. It's a form of ignorance."

So how do you deal with it? Gadsden cites receiver coach Robert Ford's lesson: "More people in this world tell you what you can't do than what you can do, so surround yourself with positive people."

Chris Chambers, 25, attended schools with few minorities, learning as much about other cultures as his own. He also learned, when it came to race-related slights, to "shrug it off, easy, without getting mad or having a temper tantrum." Now, he's not even sure he would recognize most racism. But he would prefer not to be confused for McMichael and McKnight all the time.

"It's almost like an everybody-looks-the-same deal," Chambers said.

When all they really share are some similar experiences. That and this report from The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel's Ethan J. Skolnick

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