March 24, 2010

Football, race and politics a volatile brew

Black lawmakers, angry that the General Assembly could refuse to reappoint the University of South Carolina's lone black trustee, said some of the school's star athletic recruits have been called and apprised of what lawmakers described as the state's racially inhospitable climate.

"This is a state that continues to fly the Confederate flag (on the State House grounds), and now, out of 20 elected and appointed board members, can't see fit to put a single African-American member on the board," said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Richland County Democrat and a member of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Rutherford would not say who has made the calls, nor would he say which athletes have been contacted. But the possibility that athletes could be dissuaded from attending the university in football-crazy South Carolina ignited a strong response from the public and lawmakers, some of whom support white Rock Hill lawyer Alton Hyatt Jr. for trustee over his black opponent, fellow Rock Hill lawyer Leah Moody.

"This is not an issue about race," said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York. "I'm supporting my constituent, who is well-qualified to be on the board."

Black lawmakers say Moody, 39, is also well-qualified. A USC law school graduate, she served as deputy legal counsel in the administration of Gov. Jim Hodges.

In September, Hodges' successor, Mark Sanford, appointed Moody to complete the term of the university's first black trustee, Samuel Foster II, after Foster resigned to face federal bank fraud and tax charges.

Efforts to reach Moody Wednesday were unsuccessful, but she has previously said bringing racial and gender diversity to the board is one of the reasons she wants the opportunity to serve a full term.

Members of the General Assembly are likely to vote on trustee positions next month.

If Moody loses her seat, USC would be the only member of the 12-member Southeastern Conference without a black board member. It would also stand alone among South Carolina's three research universities, as Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina have black board members.

Efforts to reach Hyatt, 45, were also unsuccessful. He, too, has previously said diversity is important to the board, though he and his supporters add they hope legislators make their choice without regard to race.

"What my hope would be is that those who committed to Mr. Hyatt based on his qualifications stick to their commitment and not bow down to political pressure from the Legislative Black Caucus," Simrill said.


Talk radio, always buzzing with USC football news, was alive with talk of Wednesday's developments. And the university's athletics department - unable to affect the outcome of the Moody-Hyatt race but very much accountable for the success of the school's sports teams - reacted cautiously.

"This is an unfortunate situation, but it is not an athletics issue," athletics director Eric Hyman said in a statement. "It is a legislative matter - something over which we have absolutely no control. I am hopeful that the legislators can work this out among themselves."

Head football coach Steve Spurrier said he favors minority representation in all walks of life.

He said he knows of no recruits being contacted about the trustee issue but added that coaches "have heard all kind of stuff about the (Confederate) flag forever."

Spurrier called for the removal of the flag from the State House grounds three years ago, saying it would make the state a better place to live. He said he does not think recruits would be swayed by the black caucus's campaign.

"They know our football program has nothing to do with the board of trustees whatsoever," he said.

State Rep. Anton Gunn, a Richland and Kershaw County Democrat and a former USC football player, told The Associated Press that star recruit Marcus Lattimore was among those who was contacted.

Lattimore, a running back from Byrnes High who was widely considered to be one of the best backs in the country, signed a letter of intent to play at USC. He and teammate Nick Jones, also a USC signee, told The (Spartanburg) Herald-Journal on Wednesday that their decisions to attend USC are unaffected by the trustees issue.

Former USC and NFL linebacker Gerald Dixon has two sons being recruited by the Gamecocks for their class of 2011.

Dixon said neither has been contacted by lawmakers about the issue.

A Rock Hill resident, Dixon said Moody has handled some legal matters for him and believes she is well-qualified to serve on the board.

Though Dixon said he wants to see minority representation on the board, the decisions about where his sons will play football will be theirs to make.

"It's a situation they're going to have to choose," he said. "If South Carolina is the school for them and there's not an African-American on the board ... I wouldn't hold them back for it. It's going to be their choice."

Moody drew praise from fellow trustee Eddie Floyd, a long-time member of the board who has donated heavily to the athletics department.

"I think Leah Moody is a wonderful candidate, a wonderful friend," Floyd said. "But I don't know why you would punish the school when your body is the one that elects the trustees."


While black legislators made clear that they don't want the state's flagship university to be without a black board member, they seemed to be leaving themselves some room to pull back from an all-out effort to dissuade black players from coming to USC.

Things do not look promising for Moody according to Simrill, who says he is on the verge of having enough votes to elect Hyatt. But anything can happen once lawmakers start voting.

"The outcome of the (board) election is not certain, so, at this point, they are not asking any one (not to attend USC)," Rutherford said.

Rather, he said the athletes and their families are, at this point, being told that racial inequalities abound in South Carolina.

"These players and their mothers and their fathers are very interested in what we have to say," Rutherford said.

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