Last week, Charles Barkley accused Auburn University of race discrimination after the school hired Gene Chizik as its next football coach over Turner Gill. "I think race was the No. 1 factor," complained Barkley. "[Y]ou can't compare the two résumés and say that Chizik deserved the job." Chizik—a white man who helped lead Auburn to a 13-0 record in 2004 as the school's defensive coordinator—had a 5-19 record in his two seasons as a head coach at Iowa State. By contrast, Gill—an African-American—turned around the University of Buffalo, one of the nation's weakest football programs, and guided the team to a Mid-American Conference championship. Not surprisingly, the school denies that race was a factor in the hiring: Auburn's athletic director, Jay Jacobs, insists that Chizik was simply the "best fit" for the school. So, who's bluffing: Is Jacobs heading up an apartheid athletic program, or is Barkley just playing the race card?
Accusations of bias are so vexing because it's often impossible to tell whether they have merit. Unless an athletic director gets drunk at a tailgate party and owns up to a "whites only" policy, we'll never have an open-and-shut case. It's hard to prove that a specific hiring decision was made on the basis of race, especially in a job as specialized and rarefied as head coach of a major college football team. As evidence of racism, Auburn's critics point out that Gill's won-loss record was better than Chizik's. But a coach has to do more than win games: He also has to schmooze the boosters and alumni who contribute money to the college. One might even say that, from the perspective of the university, winning is a means to the end of successful fundraising. A coach who can rake in the contributions might be a "better fit" than a coach who wins more often but can't charm the alumni.
But couldn't fundraising success be related to race? It's not hard to imagine a good ol' boy booster network that responds more generously to a white coach than a black one. If the school's hiring decisions are driven by the racial preferences of their donors, that's still race discrimination. In the early days of civil rights law, some businesses tried to defend themselves from charges of discrimination by arguing that they were simply responding to their customers' racial preferences by refusing to hire blacks—they claimed that racist whites wouldn't buy from black salesmen or eat food served by black waiters. Courts quickly and correctly rejected this alibi. Almost every employer in a racially prejudiced society would be able to blame his discrimination on his customers; such an exception would easily swallow the rule against race discrimination. So maybe the real problem isn't a specific racist hiring decision but rather a soft, pervasive bigotry among the boosters and alumni who ultimately run the show.
It's not just Auburn that seems to have a Jim Crow-era hiring policy for coaches—it's a problem across college football. While only six of 119 coaches (5 percent) in the NCAA's top division are black, 28.5 percent of coaches in major college basketball are black, and almost one-quarter of NFL coaches are black. It's also worth noting that only one of college football's six black coaches, Miami's Randy Shannon, represents a major-conference school; the rest are employed by universities where football is not a huge moneymaker.