Sports

Beyond Black and White: Norm Chow and the Case for Minority Hiring

David Leonard

Norm Chow has been called a 'master', a 'creative mind', and a 'legend', but he's yet to be described by the words 'head coach'.


Norm Chow

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 collegiate ranks. 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 dominant discourse.

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.


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