Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Special bonus podcast or YouTube (American Morning with Paula Zahn)
video only includes the 'Fightin' Whities' discussion, transcript is complete

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: "Big Question" this hour: who are the Fighting Whities, what kind of name is that for a sports team? Well, think about it for a moment. Most of us were brought up with teams named the Redskins, and the Braves, and the Indians without giving it a second thought. Well, now, a group of Native American students from the University of Northern Colorado are protesting a nearby high school's use of the name "Fighting Reds" by naming their own intramural team "The Fighting Whities."

They are not the first ones to cry foul over how sports teams are named, and joining us now with his take on this, and some other issues involving sports and race, once again, Keith Olbermann. He's back.

KEITH OLBERMANN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: How about this, is this a stroke of genius to call - for these guys to call themselves this name? We, for years, have been hearing how, you know, if a team were called the Washington Brownskins, there would be protests outside the stadium, and barricades. They would never get a game played. But for this intramural team in Colorado to call themselves the Fightin' - and that's no "G," notice that, Fightin'...

ZAHN: Oh, I didn't say that right.

OLBERMANN: ...Whities is a complete role reversal, it is like assuming the other gender role in a class somewhere, and I think the point is being made here how offensive this can be, how the names that we have, as you said, grown up with. Indians, Braves, Redskins, Chiefs, how offensive they can be.

ZAHN: So, how offensive is this to people in Colorado right now?

OLBERMANN: I'm not getting a big sense that because a intramural team is making this protest that it is going to resolve the entire issue, even within the state of Colorado, to say nothing about the entire world of sports, but I think that the attention that is being paid nationally is suddenly putting everybody who has never thought about this in the position of being the offended party, which is, of course, the best way you affect social change. I don't mean to get too lofty on it, but that's what sports does sometimes.

ZAHN: Now, if there is one thing that a lot of people can agree on, let's check out this latest "Sports Illustrated" cover, Charles Barkley.

OLBERMANN: Charles Barkley in chains.

ZAHN: Shackles, chains.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, the only question - this has been assumed to be some sort of racist statement, and obviously a reference to slavery, but - Paula, have you ever been on a photo shoot, have you ever been the subject of a photo shoot?

ZAHN: Yeah, but not with chains on.

OLBERMANN: All right, skip that, but what is the rule - what is the rule about photo shoots? Never - I mean, I've even been on photo shoots - never pose for a photo that you wouldn't want published on the cover.

ZAHN: Exactly. You control the photo session.

OLBERMANN: Where is the - there's suggestion that that's a racist statement, I heard Tavis Smiley on this network say there aren't enough African-American employees at CNN and Sports Illustrated to make that decision not run that picture. Where is Charles in this? Charles posed to that, Charles agreed to that.

ZAHN: Has he said anything recently about this, and what...

OLBERMANN: I think he was presuming that that was going to be interpreted, as many of us interpreted as, a satire that he was breaking free of these chains. Charles is the most unchained person in sports media, as he used to be the most unchained person in pro basketball. He has never been in any kind of chains.

ZAHN: I think we knew that before this cover.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, I think it has been interpreted, as many things are, to have more meaning than it probably originally did. Charles, probably, should be a little bit more sensitive to these things, but Charles should lose about 20 pounds, and he'll tell you that too.

ZAHN: All right. Take us to Chicago were there is another battle brewing over race.

OLBERMANN: This is an attempt to make things better that did not go well. There is an elementary school called St. Sabina that put its basketball teams, predominantly African-American kids, in an otherwise all-white league, and the players were subjected to some racial taunts, a lot of you know, much more subtle stuff, cold shoulders, executives were yelled at, no one would shake hands after games, and they - the kids at the school and the coaches and the administrators and the parents decided to pull out of this league, and go back to the league they were in before because it is just too traumatic for the kids.

ZAHN: And the priest is actually involved, is he not, in this fight, who is heading up the - Saint...

OLBERMANN: Yeah - St. Sabina. ZAHN: St. Sabina.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, there have been epithets thrown back and forth in both directions. This is a case where it did not work, and it is kind of sad, because the legacy of sports, really, in this country, is that it has been a very positive agent for change in social issues. I think the most significant thing that ever happened in sports was Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and doing well. People always say, well, you know, he broke the color line. He hit .297 that year. If he had hit .197, what would have happen to this country? What would have happened afterwards? He would have been the last African-American in professional sports, at least for a while. Would Brown beat Board of Education if it happened, would Martin Luther King's marches have happened? What else would not have happened if Jackie Robinson...


ZAHN: That's a powerful point.

OLBERMANN: Sports is, on the whole, a positive thing.

ZAHN: So, talk in a very broad brush stroke before we let you go about the significance of all these stories of race as related to sports coming up now. What does it tell us?

OLBERMANN: Well, some of them are related to a certain backsliding on the issue, just societally. I think the story in Chicago has a lot to do with the intensity with which prep sports are viewed in that city. I mean, there's a league, a hockey league, in Chicago in which a team flies up from Dallas to participate in this league every weekend because it is so intense, and it is great training for their kids.

ZAHN: Wow.

OLBERMANN: So, that may - there's racism there, obviously. Possibly on both sides, but clearly there's also sports elements, and now we get all into hockey dads and such. So, I don't know how much that has to do with the bigger picture, but the one in Colorado, that is making people think.

ZAHN: All of these are making us think here this morning. Keith Olbermann. Thanks - Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Two points to make. One, the Fightin' Whities, their slogan is, "Every thang's going to be all white," and - I swear, that's on their T-shirt. We also had an e-mail about them. A viewer writes in, saying, "The Fightin' Whities, I love it. I am a white man, I think that is one of the greatest team nicknames ever. If we, as a nation, are ever to fully embrace our diversity, we must accept the fact that we are of different colors, backgrounds, and cultures..." That was from Joe.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Does the National Football League have anything to say about the Washington Redskins and the name of that team? This isn't the first time that that's been brought up.

OLBERMANN: No, it's been a point of contention since they were the Boston Redskins in 1937. That is the most offensive name because it is a pejorative nickname, as opposed to - you can say the Braves honor, to some degree, great moments in Native American history, or even the Chiefs, and there are a lot of Native Americans, there was a big poll in "Sports Illustrated," which they polled Native Americans, and only about half of them are even concerned about this, but Redskins is the equivalent of calling that team the "Fighting Honkies (ph)."

CAFFERTY: And the NFL hasn't said a whole lot about it, have they?

OLBERMANN: No, there is marketing issues concerning that, Jack. It might be a business story.

ZAHN: The ever-present marketing issues. Where have we heard that before. Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: My pleasure.