Coach Wears a Dunce Cap, But We’re Not Sure Why

You’re forgiven, coach, although it would help all concerned if you would explain what it was you did wrong.

Like this correspondent, the Associated Press, in reporting the story about Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry’s sin, floundered in confusion over exactly what the man had said to cause a minor national uproar.

The occasion of Coach DeBerry’s fall from grace was his team’s decisive defeat by Texas Christian University. In explaining his failure to win, Coach DeBerry said that the other side “had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did …. It just seems to me to be that way …. Afro-American kids can run very well.” By way of explaining the slowness of his own team, he added that “you don’t see many minority athletes in our program.”

With that, the roof fell in on Coach DeBerry, who responded with a public confession. This kind of thing used to be routine in Communist China in the era of Mao Zedong’s despotism, but, if press reports are accurate, the days of putting dunce caps on innocent people and making them confess to crimes of thought and speech are over in China: These days, they just jail them. However, along with the television sets, clothes and kitchen utensils, they seem to have exported the practice of public penance to America.

So there was Coach DeBerry, groveling out the formulas we use for these occasions. “I have made a mistake, and I ask for everyone’s forgiveness,” he said. “I regret these statements, and I sincerely hope they will not reflect negatively toward the academy or our coaches or our players, and I thank the administration for the opportunity to make this apology,” he continued—and then went on, as is the custom, to amplify and repeat his apology: “I realize the things I said might have been hurtful to many people, and I want everyone to understand that I never intended to offend anyone.”

It was left to athletic director Hans Mueh to tell everyone that what Coach DeBerry said “was a seriously, seriously inappropriate comment.” The word “inappropriate” has lost its original meaning of “not fitting or suitable or proper” and has yet to gain a clear new one. It’s used by those who are either lost in their own verbiage or else hiding out in it because to say what they mean would be too painful. Whatever its meaning, you will always hear it when it comes time to make someone don the dunce cap and be humiliated.

The Associated Press, an organization seldom fazed by a story, was forced to tell its readers that “DeBerry took a few questions at the news conference after making his initial apology [but] at times, it wasn’t quite clear whether he was apologizing for what he said, and the ideas they conveyed, or merely for his word choice.”

In the darkest days of Stalinism and Maoism, a person was never certain when an innocent remark would be seized on and used against him. Under questioning, the victim would splash and gasp, hoping to hit on what he’d said that was wrong so he could apologize for it.

When someone—maybe to have fun with him—asked Coach DeBerry, “What exactly was wrong with saying that blacks run very well?”, the 67-year-old coach, struggling to keep a job that he’s had for 22 years, answered, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. We have some Caucasian players that run very, very well also. My choice of words—I probably should have said ‘players’ rather than expressing a particular ethnic group.”

Mr. Mueh interposed to save his buddy from making things worse for himself. “Fisher’s already apologized for that statement,” he said. “What we’re talking about is speed. There’s speed that cuts across black, white, gray, blue, whatever. It was just an inappropriate comment, and you all know it was an inappropriate comment.” There’s that word again—and then the matter ended with the athletic director bricking himself up behind a wall of formulaic nonsense. The academy “has a zero-tolerance policy for any racial or ethnic discrimination or discrimination of any kind.”

As it happens, a man named Jon Entine has written a book on the subject of speed and athletic prowess as it is observed in members of various gene pools. The book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, has a lot to say about speed and African-Americans (and Africans). If Mr. DeBerry had used some of the material in the book, he at least would’ve been able to make a plausible case for himself. Who knows, the coach might’ve been able to convince a few people that expressing a desire for a couple of swift pass-catchers doesn’t constitute hate speech or a lesser form of racism or insensitivity. In the catalog of sins against the public etiquette, none is vaguer than the crime of insensitivity. You never can tell when you might, unbeknownst to yourself, be committing it.

According to Mr. Entine, some African-Americans bridle at the suggestion that more members of their group can run, leap and jump faster, longer and higher than members of other groups, because they think people who say such things are linking them in some way to animals and animal strength. Mr. Entine found a black track coach at Stanford who evidently spent years trying to disprove the hypothesis that African-Americans have greater athletic ability than others by finding a white runner capable of winning a gold medal somewhere. He didn’t.

It’s a strange world when some people twist their knickers to demonstrate that they (or members of their affinity group) are not the best in a given field. Are Jewish people smarter than other people? I have no idea, but some 2,000 years of persecution haven’t persuaded them that the way out is to seek the median, not the highest and best.

Doubtless, there are large numbers of African-Americans who are also content to be regarded as more likely than others to be among the best. But there are enough people who don’t think that way to make Coach DeBerry don the dunce cap of public humiliation.

How are we to get on if groups are going to get so prickly that intelligent debate is suppressed? Ye gods! An athletic coach should be able to muse about who can run fastest without the roof falling in. Granted that Coach DeBerry, loveable old coot that he may well be, first made it into the headlines a few months ago when the outside world found out that he had hoisted a banner across his team’s dressing room which informed those who might be interested that “I am a Christian first and last …. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” But a religious bigot is not necessarily a racial bigot, and Coach DeBerry may not be a bigot at all, but simply a well-intentioned jerk.

Whatever he is, the larger question is what’s going to happen to us if we don’t put the dunce cap away. Once the model of a diverse society, we are now the model of a stressed one. Can non-Muslims live in safety in a society of self-segregating Muslims? The anger directed toward illegal Hispanic immigration is reaching dangerous proportions, and the ire cannot be swept away as dumb prejudice when you can read in the Los Angeles Times about illegal immigrants and their coyotes stoning, shooting and trying to run over U.S. Border Patrol agents. We read of murderous, sadistic gangs from Russia and the frightening Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) gang, and we begin to ask ourselves if diversity is going awry.

But we only ask ourselves, because the discussion can’t be carried on in an open and free way lest the speakers blunder into somebody else’s sensitivity. All over the European Union, peoples and nations that have accepted, to a greater or lesser extent, the American ideal of diversity are now having second thoughts.

A lot of debate is needed, and it isn’t going to happen if we all have to wear dunce caps.

Coach Wears a Dunce Cap, But We’re Not Sure Why