The Courage of an Unpopular Voice Creates a Human Rights Champion… and He Lives in Our Backyard
Anthony F. Sos, Esq.
The Briefs, February 2020 / Vol. 88 No. 2
Richard Lapchick’s very first memory of life was from 1950. He was a five-year-old boy and the son of an NBA head coach. Racial tensions were high. The image of what he saw when he peered outside his bedroom window is forever sealed in his mind. It’s also what helped shape his life’s path. An image of his father hung in effigy from a tree while nearby picketers angrily demonstrated.
Lapchick also remembers picking up the extension phone in his house and hearing someone yell, “N______ lover” at his father, who did not know his son was listening. At such a young age, Lapchick did not really know what any of it meant, only that it looked “ugly.”
In time, Lapchick learned that his dad was a well-known sports figure and the head coach of the New York Knicks. His father signed one of the first African American players, Nathanial “Sweetwater” Clifton, at a time when signing an African American to a “white” NBA team did not sit well with many people who angrily voiced their objections, including toward the Lapchick family. Indeed, the demonstrators the young Lapchick had observed from his bedroom window were protesting his father’s involvement in the Knicks’ signing of Clifton.
Because of the turbulent times, the Lapchick family often discussed racial issues, trying to recognize the challenges minorities faced. They also created a robust home culture of trying to do the right thing. This culture instilled in Lapchick the values and courage needed to speak out when it was unpopular to do so. It also led Lapchick to become a champion of the human rights movement. Before reading further, please take a moment to review the bullet point summary below that highlights some of the many accomplishments and accolades Lapchick has received as a result of his life’s work.
I first learned of Lapchick when conferring with colleagues about potential speakers for our OCBA luncheons. After looking him up and discovering the many laudable causes he has championed, I felt remiss that such a leader was living and teaching in Central Florida, at my alma mater, no less, and I had never heard of him. Reading about his tackling of so many difficult humanitarian issues made me want to learn more. Inspired by his courage, passion, and ability to effectuate real change, I reached out to him and requested an interview. I hoped to get a closer glimpse into his life’s journey, his philosophy, and his drive to advance the cause of human equality.
After spending only minutes with Lapchick, one thing became clear: He has a deep passion for his life’s work of promoting diversity, inclusion, and equality. And that passion derives from his own life experiences. Growing up, he witnessed his father speaking up when others chose not to do so. That example gave Lapchick the courage to do the same. An early opportunity came during his ninth-grade year while attending basketball camp. The camp consisted of “five other white guys and a black guy.” After hearing that one of the camp participants repeatedly used the “N” word when addressing the one black attendee, Lapchick publicly confronted him. The result was a physical confrontation that left Lapchick knocked out cold on the ground. Though Lapchick lost that physical fight, he gained a lifelong friend and a life lesson. The fellow camper he spoke up for was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. (better now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
In 1968, Abdul-Jabbar became more than just a friend to Lapchick; he became Lapchick’s “hero,” for that is when Abdul-Jabbar agreed to participate in the boycott of the Mexico City Olympic Games in protest of the apartheid movement in South Africa. The official boycott did not materialize, but Abdul-Jabbar still made the unpopular decision to take a stance against racial injustices and not participate in the Olympic games. For example, Abdul-Jabbar mentioned this was the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and he was not feeling very patriotic. In a recent interview with NBC Sports, Abdul-Jabbar said, “I didn’t regret my choice. I was glad I made the choice I did, and I was ready to live with it, but I think what I did accomplish was raising people’s consciousness and to me that’s worth more than a gold medal.” Lapchick happened to be one of those people who was deeply inspired by Abdul-Jabbar’s action to personally boycott the games. When President Barack Obama awarded Abdul-Jabbar the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Abdul-Jabbar invited Lapchick to attend the White House ceremony and to accept the award with him.
Although Lapchick had aspirations to be a professional basketball player, “the basketball gods,” as he put it, did not do him any favors when it came to his height. Consequently, he used his passion for sports as a platform to effectuate social change. He participated in the fight against apartheid, which, through his leadership, resulted in the boycott of South African teams from many international sporting events. In 1978, with Lapchick leading the charge, it looked like the Davis Cup was going to be canceled due to players from around the world boycotting participation in opposition to apartheid. As a result, many people became angry with Lapchick’s activism, for the “success” he was achieving was disruptive to popular pastimes.
Lapchick would soon again be reminded that lending his voice to unpopular causes could have dire consequences. Two men physically attacked Lapchick in his office. Holding him down, they used a pair of scissors to carve the “N” word into his stomach. While this encounter, like the one from his early years, may have caused many other people to change course, it only emboldened Lapchick. He dug even deeper in the battle for civil and human rights changes. Years later, after anti-apartheid movements helped achieve change, Lapchick received a personal invitation from Nelson Mandela to attend his 1994 presidential inauguration.
Because I cannot possibly recap in this message all of Lapchick’s achievements, I urge you to read about him yourselves. What I can tell you is that Lapchick does more than just speak out when it is unpopular to do so; he has helped to effect real change in so many of the causes he cares about. In hoping to share with you how we might learn from his successes, I told him a little bit about the OCBA and asked his thoughts. This was our colloquy:
Tony: In my research of you, one word came to mind: proactive. You are an activist. Being a lawyer is an amazing profession. You can do a lot of really great things. You can do some harm, too. You just have to make sure you’re channeled in the right direction. But I know our local bar has so many good people who really want to do good things and really make a difference in the world. I see it in our Young Lawyers Section and many of my colleagues. We’re not all just bogged down taking depositions and handling cases. So, if you’re talking to my fellow lawyer colleagues, what would you say to motivate them to feel like they can make a difference and how they can do it?
Lapchick: First of all, I always talk about our range of social justice issues that need to be addressed, including racism and sexism that are most highlighted, but I’ll talk about the wealth gap, violence among our kids, child abuse, human trafficking, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and missing children. There are a whole range of things, and I’d say to them, pick one of those that seems compelling to you. If you’re not already doing something, read about it; learn everything you can about it. Find a local organization, because there will be one here that is doing something about it. Spend some time with them, and lend your legal services to them. Whatever form it takes to get involved, you will be better for doing it if you’re not doing it yet.
Tony: So, if I am summarizing, it starts with getting a very deep understanding about a cause you are passionate about. I think a lot of people get stuck; they want to make change; they want to do good things, but the complexities of life get in the way. But you didn’t just do it one time. You succeeded in a lot of different areas. So, what is the characteristic you have that allows you to break through and really make a difference? It’s not just a coincidence. It has happened a lot. What is your secret?
Lapchick: I would close, and do close, with a compelling story about my experience and feelings when I attended Mandela’s inauguration. Driving from Johannesburg to Pretoria in South Africa, seeing all of the military hardware along the 90 kilometers of that road and knowing that’s what had been used to suppress the black South African people for all those years was now going to be turned over to a man of peace, and then watching him become president, that if a political prisoner in the most racist government on the face of the earth in the second half of the 20th century can go from being a political prisoner to the president in a four-year period of time, all of the social justice issues that we’re talking about here, we can change. It’s possible to do anything and everything is possible. I learned that on that day of May 10, 1994, when he was inaugurated.
It was an honor to interview Dr. Lapchick and take inspiration from such an accomplished human rights leader. I hope his message inspires you, too. While we cannot all devote our lives to changing lives, hopefully we can find time and passion for causes we care about. At the very least, perhaps Dr. Lapchick’s words will encourage us to speak out, even if unpopular, when it matters most.
Summary of Dr. Richard Lapchick’s Awards and Accomplishments1
Lapchick was the American leader of the international campaign to boycott apartheid in South Africa in sport for more than 20 years. In 1984, he helped found the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. In 1993, the Center launched TEAMWORK South Africa, a program designed to improve race relations through sports and to help with sports development in post-apartheid South Africa. He was among 200 guests specially invited to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in May 1994.
- In 2006, Lapchick was named both the Central Florida Public Citizen of the Year and the Florida Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.
- Along with Arthur Ashe and Nelson Mandela, he was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame of the Commonwealth Nations in 1999 in the category of “Humanitarian,” and he received the Ralph Bunche International Peace Award.
- He joined Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, and Wilma Rudolph in the Sport in Society Hall of Fame in 2004.
- He was inducted into the Central Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and into the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
- In 2012, Lapchick was honored by the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida at its annual Dinner of Tribute.
- Lapchick received the Champions Award from the Alliance of Women’s Coaches, the only male to receive the award in 2012.
- The Black Coaches Association presented Lapchick with their Distinguished Service Award; it was only the second time they presented this award in 28 years.
- Lapchick received the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award at the 2012 Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies.
- In 2013, the National Association of Black Journalists gave Lapchick their Pioneer Award. In 2014, the National Basketball Retired Players Association gave Lapchick, Bill Russell, and Pat Summitt their Life Achievement Award.
- In 2009, the Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition and Rev. Jesse Jackson honored Dr. Lapchick with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Work in Civil Rights.
- Lapchick won the Diversity Leadership Award at the 2003 Literacy Classic and the Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award from Tufts University in 2000.
- Lapchick won the Wendell Scott Pioneer Award in 2004 and the NASCAR Diversity Award in 2008 for leadership in advancing people of color in the motor sports industry, education, employment, and life.
- Lapchick received the Hero Among Us Award from the Boston Celtics in 1999 and was named as the Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez Fellow by the State of Michigan in 1998.
- Lapchick was the winner of the 1997 Arthur Ashe Voice of Conscience Award.
- Lapchick won the 1997 Women’s Sports Foundation President’s Award for work toward the development of women’s sports.
- Lapchick is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Education, Who’s Who in Finance and Industry, and Who’s Who in American Business.
- Lapchick was named as “one of the 100 most powerful people in sport” for six consecutive years and as “one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America.”
- In 2003¬-04, he served as the national spokesperson for VERB, the Center for Disease Control’s program to combat preteen obesity.
- Lapchick has consulted with companies as an expert on both managing diversity and building community relations through service programs that address the social needs of youth.
- In 1985, Lapchick helped form and eventually served as president of The Institute for Sport and Social Justice (“ISSJ”). ISSJ athletes have worked with 19.9 million youth in the school outreach and community service program, which focuses on teaching youth how to improve race relations, develop conflict resolution skills, prevent gender violence, and avoid drug and alcohol abuse. They have collectively donated more than 22 million hours of service while member colleges have donated more than $300 million in tuition assistance.
- In 2007, he was named as an honorary citizen by the New Orleans City Council following a program Lapchick, his wife, daughters, and some of his students formed called Hope for Stanley Alliance. The program organized student-athletes to travel to New Orleans to assist in the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward following the hurricane devastation. Since its inception, the program has resulted in spending more than 47 weeks in the city and worked on more than 125 homes.
- The Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University where Lapchick was the director for 17 years and is now the Director Emeritus, along with the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, created the MVP gender violence prevention program. The program has been so successful with college and high school athletes that all branches of the U.S. military have adopted it.
- Lapchick is working on his 17th book; he often appears as a columnist on ESPN.com; he has written more than 550 articles; and he has given more than 2,800 speeches.
- Lapchick has seized the opportunity to be a voice on areas of sports and social issues in the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, and the European Parliament.
- Lapchick has made several appearances on “Good Morning America,” “Face the Nation,” “The Today Show,” “ABC World News,” “NBC Nightly News,” the “CBS Evening News,” CNN and ESPN.
- Lapchick has received nine honorary degrees. In 1993, he was named as the outstanding alumnus at the University of Denver where he earned his Ph.D. in international race relations in 1973. Lapchick received a B.A. from St. John’s University in 1967 and an honorary degree from St. John’s in 2001.
- Lapchick is a board member of the Open Doors Foundation and the Central Florida YMCA. He is on the advisory boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Alliance of Women Coaches, Harbor House and the Giving Back Fund.
- Under Lapchick’s leadership, the DeVos Program launched the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (“TIDES”) in December 2002. In the area of diversity, the institute publishes the critically acclaimed Racial and Gender Report Card, long authored by Lapchick in his former role as director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. The report card is an annual study of the racial and gender hiring practices of major professional sports, college sport and the media in the U.S. that shows long-term trends over a decade and highlights organizations that are notable for diversity in coaching and management staffs.
Anthony F. Sos, Esq., is a partner at Dellecker, Wilson, King, McKenna, Ruffier & Sos, LLP. He has been a member of the OCBA since 2005.
1 I am giving full credit to UCF College of Business Biography web page https://business.ucf.edu/person/richard-lapchick/ for summarizing Dr. Richard Lapchick’s accomplishments. This bullet point list of accomplish