[SPORTS] Norm Chao - Beyond Black and White
- BEYOND BLACK AND WHITE:
Norm Chow and the Case for Minority Hiring
by David Leonard
Leading up to this year's collegiate championship game in the Orange
Bowl, virtually every report on the USC football team made mention
of Norm Chow, the team's offensive coordinator. Described as
a "genius," the "architect" of their success, and a "brilliant"
football mind, the media offered a litany of accolades in praise of
Chow. Yet amid this praise, Chow once again faced an all-too-
familiar situation -- his talents and résumé failed to translate
into a head coaching position.
Chow's record speaks for itself. He's been coaching for more than
three decades at both the collegiate and professional level. From
1973 through 1999, he was an assistant coach at Brigham Young
University, developing several young quarterbacks -- such as future
professionals Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and Ty Detmer -- and
coordinating one of the most effective offenses in college sports.
Upon leaving BYU, Chow spent a short time at North Carolina State,
tutoring the eventual first round draft pick Phillip Rivers, before
finding a home at USC. As the team's offensive coordinator, Chow has
resuurected a once-proud program, contributing to two national
championships and two Heisman trophies within the last four years.
While fans and commentators continue to praise head coach Pete
Carroll for USC's dominance, an equal level of adoration has been
afforded to Chow.
Still, this "master," "creative mind," and "legend" has yet to be
described by the words "head coach." And this is not by his
choosing. Dismissing claims that he is content as an assistant
coach, Chow has consistently made his aspirations clear: "Sure, why
not. I haven't had a chance. I haven't been bombarded. It's not like
people are knocking at the door. I've turned one job down." And
though unwilling to openly cite the racism that has transformed the
collegiate coaching ranks into a world of Jim Crow, Chow is clearly
aware of the racial implications of his position: "There's not an
Asian head coach in college football. I don't want to think too much
about it, but it's there."
His own experiences speak to the presence of racism within the
college coaching ranks, which contributed, in part, to his departure
from BYU. During a meeting between members of the athletic
department and administrators, Chow witnessed firsthand the racism
of those in power: "I'm sitting here, this guy's [a new white vice
president at the university] standing three feet away from me
talking about this, that, and the other. And he says, 'we're going
to build this new facility and we got all the Chinamen lined up,
ready to go.'" Rightly infuriated, Chow confronted his athletic
director, who, in turn, took Chow's complaint to the vice president.
The VP defended his own actions by telling the athletic director, "I
didn't know Norm was Chinese." Chow left BYU soon after, forced to
start over after thirty-two years at the school.
Along with his age and lack of head coaching experience, this
anecdote has been offered up as an explanation for why Chow is not a
head coach today. This reasoning, however, fails to properly address
the complexity of the racist realities of collegiate coaching.
Focusing on the specific racism of an unidentified bigot, the
coverage concerning the lack of opportunities afforded to Chow has
failed to address institutional racism and the meaning of Asianness
within contemporary (sporting) culture.
The lack of opportunities afforded to Chow and others is not
exclusively the result of the actions of a few racist
administrators -- it's not that simple. Such denial is instead
systemic, the result of longstanding and pernicious racial
discourses and ideologies. The fact that Chow recently accepted a
professional offensive coordinator position with the Tennessee
Titans only underscores the loan of his genius and technical
wizardry in support of white, athletic, "leaders" of men (in this
case, head coach Jeff Fisher). The lack of head coaching
opportunities for Chow reflects the ongoing construction of Asian
American men, who are framed not in terms of athleticism, strength,
or leadership, but as cerebral and creative. Chow can ostensibly
craft an offensive strategy, but can't lead an athletic team defined
by its manhood and power.
The absence of Asian American coaches (and players) embodies the
long-standing feminization of all things "Asian," which, in turn,
reserves desired athletic and leadership qualities for white
coaches. Edward Said explains the Western conception of Asians as
physically inferior in his landmark book Orientalism: "There are
Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; and the
latter must be dominated." This racialized definition of Asian men
as weak exists as a guiding obstacle to Asian advancement in the
Similarly, white supremacist discourses that position black men as
purely physical, without the mental capabilities of their white
counterparts, contribute to a scarcity of black coaches. The
exclusion of Chow and so many black coaches is the effect of the
same racist system and hegemony of ideologies. The failure to
investigate the links between Chow and, for example, Tyrone
Willingham (the recently fired black head coach at Notre Dame),
limits the discussion to individual prejudice and to a black/white
binary. Ultimately, this is also the failure to unsettle the
Now let us be clear: this is not to deny conversations that have
taken place regarding the persistent levels of racism within college
sports and the lack of opportunities available for minority coaches.
But after last year's firing of Willingham, Fritz Hill (San Jose
State), and Tony Samuel (New Mexico), college football was left with
just two black coaches (of 117 positions) -- UCLA's Karl Dorrell and
Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom. "The numbers speak," notes
Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association
(BCA). "Statistics are telling me that things are not fair. And
anybody that thinks that they're fair is way, way off."
Despite Keith's comments, the firing of three-fifths of Division I
black football coaches this year only prompted an ineffective,
toothless debate regarding the state of minority hiring in college
football. Although there is an appearance of public concern about
black football coaches, it only seems loud compared to the
whispering about Norm Chow. Moreover, the emerging discourse has
muted discussions of institutional racism. Such debates focus more
on an inequality of numbers than the ingrained nature of racism as
the root cause.
For the sake of all minorities in collegiate athletics, though, it
is important to avoid superficial discussions that privilege one
debate or situation over the other, and to begin to develop theories
and paradigmatic frameworks that reflect on the complexity of racial
meaning. Importantly, we must use the history of Chow and the
ongoing racial obstacles facing minority coaches as the impetus for
coalitions. Supporters of Norm Chow, whether commentators from Asian
Week or the numerous outraged chatroom dwellers, must be equally
vocal in demanding access for black coaches, just as the NAACP and
Jesse Jackson must come to the aid of Norm Chow.
In a recent column for ESPN.com, in response to Notre Dame's firing
of Willingham, Richard Lapchick lamented the absence of
opportunities for today's African American football coaching
fraternity. "The women's movement in sport gained its most vigorous
momentum, not after the passage of Title IX in 1972 but only when
women took colleges and universities to court for lack of
implementation," argued Lapchick. "Something dramatic needs to
happen if this incredible slap in the face of African-American
coaches and student-athletes can be rectified." Elsewhere, Floyd
Keith has asserted, "This is not going to go away, we are asking for
the fair treatment of coaches that are capable. When you look at the
African-Americans in football at all levels, it's pathetic." Yet in
neither instance does the debate or discourse go far enough. Such
comments, though well intended, limit the discussion to experiences
of racism within a black/white binary.
The logic of white supremacy that limits coaching opportunities
within collegiate football, however, is the same logic that impairs
equity and justice for all minorities throughout the United States.
This is not to say that identical histories and realities define
African Americans and Asian Americans, but rather that we must avoid
discourses of exceptionalism. Future fights must go beyond these
reductions and give voice to the ways in which white supremacy
impairs and affects opportunities for all people of color. Sports --
in this case football -- offers us a powerful opportunity to engage
in such a fight.