By MARK F. GRAY, Staff Writer,

Sports and race are constantly intersecting on all media platforms with athletes expressing their political and social views against the backdrop of patriotism. From the “shut up and dribble” comments towards athletes such as LeBron James- sports journalists are charged with the task of interpreting separate but equal worlds they live and compete in today.

During the 13th annual Shirley Povich Symposium, at the University of Maryland College Park, sports journalists and executives candidly discussed the issues of race that are affecting games athletes are playing and fuels the passion of fans.  Race in Sports: The Challenges Continue gave the panelists an open forum to discuss the questions of race that make headlines.

Talk show host and symposium moderator Maury Povich, {Washington Post} sports writer Chelsea Janes, former Congressman Tom McMillen, Vice President of the Undefeated Kevin Merida, ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith at the Race in Sports symposium at University of Maryland College Park. (Courtesy Photo)

ESPN SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt and former Congressman Tom McMillen – both Maryland products – headlined a group of experts that included NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, {Washington Post} Nationals beat writer Chelsea Janes and Kevin Merida, Vice President of ESPN’s The Undefeated. They were probed by daytime talk show host Maury Povich whose father the sports journalism school is named after.

“The greatest unifier we have in our country is sports,” said Van Pelt.

Povich’s father Shirley was a longtime columnist at {The Washington Post} and outspoken regarding issues of race in sports. The talk show host opened the evening’s conversation by addressing the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair asking the panelists if they thought race was a part of this disaster.

McMillen was part of the recently concluded Board of Regents independent investigation in the case of McNair’s death.

“We interviewed over 150 players and there was no evidence that race played into it at all,” said McMillen.  “We actually found that in our interviews Coach Durkin actually did better with the African American players.”

McMillen was an all-American basketball player while at Maryland and a member of the 1972 US Olympic Team. He notices the similarities facing outspoken athletes who are social advocates from today’s generation but, says the perils his generation of Black athletes faced was far more punitive than now.

“There were serious ramifications for Black athletes who chose to speak out on matters of civil rights when we played,” said McMillen.  “Those were real polarizing times where athletes were dismissed on the spot from the Village for any kind of demonstrations at all.”

Smith, who is head of the union that is suing the NFL on behalf of former San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, argued that in his sport the owners have the power to impose professional sanctions on employees with opposing political views.

“Sports is a microcosm of what’s going on in our country,” Smith said.  “Kaepernick being banned from playing football proves there’s an imbalance of power since owners want to force their will on employees.”

Smith reluctantly gave credit to NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell for relaxing the league’s policy on players standing for the national anthem but, he also called the Rooney Rule – that mandates all teams with a head coaching vacancy must interview at least one minority candidate – a “sham” since there is no way of adequately policing it.

“If you’ve got the right last name you start off at third base without hitting a triple,” Smith said.

Merida sees these trying social times as the platform for the new era of Black social activists athletes.

“Black athletes are stepping this moment of division to reach out,” Merida said. “They’ve never had the megaphones they have now and are using them to effect change.

The panelists agreed with Van Pelt’s assessment that the NBA does the best job of meeting the players on their issues of the three major sports leagues.