Sports Talk: College Football, Boxing

From the firing of UCLA football coach Karl Dorrell to boxing's place in reality TV, NPR's Tony Cox talks with New York Times sports writer Bill Rhoden. Rhoden also weighs in on the Bowl championships and the hype leading up to the championship fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Ricky Hatton.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's time now for a look at sports. And for that, we have NEWS & NOTES very own Tony Cox.

TONY COX: Hey, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Tony, how many big-time college football programs are there?

COX: Well, about 25, give or take, at the top level of college football.

CHIDEYA: And, well, how many of those have African-American coaches?

COX: Well, Farai, there were six. Now, there are five and a half, actually. And I know where you're going with this.

So it's topic number one for today's conversation with New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden.

Hey, Bill. How are you?

Mr. WILLIAM C. RHODEN (Columnist, The New York Times): The great Tony Cox. I'm fine, man. How are you doing?

COX: I'm doing great.

Listen, Bill, this week, we saw another African-American coach get sacked. Karl Dorrell is out at UCLA after having 35 wins against 27 losses in five years. He's been replaced on an interim bases for UCLA's Vegas ball game against BYU with defensive coordinator, DeWayne Walker. Now, he's the guy who's given much of the credit for UCLA's lone victory over cross-town giant, USC, a year ago. And you know what happened in that must-win game this year, so Dorrell got the boot.

A lot of folks, Bill, were rooting for him because there are so few black coaches out there and he did clean up the program a little bit. But he got five years - that was fair, wasn't it?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah. I mean - you know, when he signed up for this, Tony, you realized that you're getting, as a coach, you're being hired to be fired. So I think that's never been the issue with minority coaches and with African-American coaches. And I think the issue is the recyclability of coaches.

Now, once you get fired, will you then immediately get another job? It's just the transition going from one to the other. And with - historically, with African-American coaches it's been, you got that one shot, and when you get fired, that's it.

COX: Yeah.

Mr. RHODEN: I mean, you know, (unintelligible) was an exception, but the rule is normally, you get fired, that's it, you know, and then go to the broadcast booth to…

COX: Well, how many are there exactly? Because, you know, I get confused, is it five or is it six, not counting Walker?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, totally, the big schools you got five. You got just one, quickly, you got one, you know, at Washington, you got one at University of Miami, you got one at K-State, you got one at University of Buffalo, and you got one in Mississippi State.

COX: All right. Let's talk about the BCS, because what a wreck it's been this season…

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah.

COX: …depending on your school, of course. Now, the BCS championship national game pits Ohio State against LSU. A lot of people think that it should have been Georgia and Southern Cal, or maybe even Oklahoma.

Now, Bill, nobody's ever happy. But do the BCS really just messed up this year?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, you know, Tony, it just gets worse. It just gets worse and worse and worse every year. And this year is just a disaster because now you've got all these two lost teams. And so you just basically close your eyes and reach into a hat and grab, you know, two teams.

Am I disappointed that's it LSU and Ohio State? No, because these are too strong for wins. But it, like you said, it could have been Missouri. It could have been Southern Cal, you know? It's just almost a criminal system that you deprive people at the end of year of really finding out who's number one.

You need a playoff. You need a mini-tournament. Everybody knows it, but they just want to keep these cash-cow bowl - indefinite bowls. And this is - and to me, that's what criminal about the whole system.

COX: Now, the BCS, the top bowls, these are $14 million and up per bowl, per team.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah.

COX: Correct?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's a huge business. And to just suddenly say we're going to do a tournament. You've got, you know, like the Outback Bowls and all these other bowls, now, wait a minute. You know, that - what are we going to do? So you're right.

I mean, this is a whole lucrative business, Tony. And to me, it really reinforces a whole plantation system of college football because here you have to use, you know, kids playing for a scholarship, which is fine. But all these millions of dollars are swirling around about them, and there's no compensation. And I've always maintained that if your school gets to one of these lucrative bowls, the player should then get some type of compensation.

COX: Let's turn to boxing for a moment because Saturday, a big fight coming up between two unbeaten (unintelligible).

Mr. RHODEN: A huge fight.

COX: A big, big fight.

Mr. RHODEN: Big fight.

COX: Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather Jr. But I want to talk about this new thing called - this new hype, it's a show called "24/7," which delves into lives of both boxers leading up to the big fight. Is this a sign that boxing is in trouble in terms of getting people to watch that they have to hype it this way?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, I think, Tony, that it's just a sign of the times. That everything is reality TV, even boxing, which is the ultimate reality. I mean, two people pummeling each other, that's not enough, you know? We've now got to do this "24/7." I think, frankly, you've got so much in this fight with Hatton, the Brit Hatton, you know, the white kid, Mayweather, for the American, a black kid, great champion.

I think there are a lot of elements if you're going to make this a very appealing fight. But to get back to your question, this is just simply the times we live in and that what you do is enough. You have to hype it beyond that.

COX: You know, how much do you think this boxing reality circus hold itself to the legacy of - let's say Muhammad Ali, for example, who never saw a camera that he didn't like and who'd turn his own life into a hype machine 24/7 a long time ago.

Mr. RHODEN: See, I don't want to sully Ali's image. I mean, I think Ali, first and foremost, was a man of principle and exceptional boxing child. But he was a person of principle, but yes, he did. He and Don King did see the idea of - or the notion, you got to sell the stuff.

COX: HE would love this.

RHODEN: "24/7," is that all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Absolutely. I don't want to end on a down note, but I do want to ask you about this Samari Rolle thing really quickly. Samari Rolle from the Baltimore Ravens, Monday night football against the Patriots, a game very controversial. Rolle complaining to the NFL, which said it would investigate. Rolle's problem was that he claimed that an official called him a boy. Now, the official, also black and older, but this just seems bizarre to me.

Mr. RHODEN: Silly and bizarre. And I think what happened too is that - Rolle may have told this guy something - I think one of the - you never played pro-football. Well, of course…

COX: Which he did.

Mr. RHODEN: …this guy did play professional football. And I think that what he probably said, and if he didn't, he should have said, boy, I was playing football before you were even born.

COX: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: He should have said that. In that case, boy, it's completely justifiable because you don't know your history, you're talking out your hat, shut up.

COX: Bill, thank you very much.

Mr. RHODEN: Tony, it's always a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox, speaking with our regular sports commentator, William C. Rhoden. Rhoden is a sports columnist for the New York Times and author of "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Tribulations of the Black Quarterback." And he joined us from NPR studios in New York City.

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