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Lapchick recognized as Champion of Diversity

Human rights activist and author is a leading voice for equity in sports

Richard Lapchick speaks at the 2010 NCAA Convention. NCAA PHOTOS

On matters of ethnic diversity and inclusive hiring in athletics, perhaps no one speaks more boldly or authoritatively than Richard Lapchick.

Lapchick has a vast history as a human rights activist and an expert on sports issues. The 71-year-old served on the front lines of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s, and he is often called “the racial conscience of sport.” He has overcome numerous threats and suffered serious physical harm in his decadeslong pursuit of fairness for people of all backgrounds.

The NCAA is acknowledging the contributions of Lapchick, who is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. The NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee has selected Lapchick as a Champion of Diversity and Inclusion, a recognition for individuals who have worked to create opportunities in college sports for racial and ethnic minorities.

“Richard has been a leading voice for equity in sports for many years, and we are grateful for this opportunity to celebrate his contributions,” said Bernard Franklin, the NCAA’s chief inclusion officer and executive vice president of education and community engagement. “The Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee chose to recognize him as a Champion of Diversity because of his continuous efforts to make sports a more inclusive and representative space.

“Richard’s long-standing impact through his courageous personal story and philosophy, his historical stance against apartheid and much more shows his dedication to diversity and inclusion in college sports. We hope that sharing his successes will encourage others to follow his model.” 

Lapchick has built a prodigious and far-reaching resume. Besides his position in the DeVos program, he also directs The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF. He is the author of the Racial and Gender Report Card,  the institute’s annual project that assesses hiring practices in professional and college sports. He has written 16 books.

Lapchick also established the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, a group that involves student-athletes, coaches and athletics administrators in using sports as an agent for positive change. The NCAS, with Lapchick as director, created the Shut Out Trafficking program, which raises awareness of and fights human trafficking.

For Lapchick, the recognition of his lifelong work from the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee holds special significance.

“I was simultaneously humbled and honored when I learned … that I was being recognized as an NCAA Champion of Diversity and Inclusion,” Lapchick said. “Having worked on college campuses for most of the last four decades, the source of that recognition makes it have even more meaning.”

Rigorous pursuit of fairness and equity ran in the DNA of Lapchick’s family. His father, Joe Lapchick, was coach of the NBA’s New York Knicks and, in 1950, signed Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, one of the first African-American players in the league. As a 5-year-old, Richard saw his father’s image hanged in effigy near their Yonkers, New York, home because of his moves to integrate the NBA.

Richard Lapchick calls his father, who is in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as a player, his “immediate role model and source of inspiration.” Later in Richard’s life, the Rev. George Houser became a mentor. Houser was a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, a participant in the first Freedom Ride through the South in 1947 and an integral leader in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

“As a child of the civil rights movement, I grew up in a family fighting for equal opportunity and all the human rights due to every human being,” Lapchick said. “So many people of all races, religions and genders have fought for and achieved a more integrated and equal society.”

In his battle for fairness for all, Lapchick himself became a victim of hate. In 1978, he was teaching at a Virginia college but also had grown to be a formidable voice in the struggle against apartheid. As Lapchick worked one night in his college office, two masked intruders attacked him, leaving him with a concussion, kidney and liver damage, and a racial epithet carved into his stomach.

However, Lapchick refused to buckle. In fact, the incident steeled him for future work.

“I definitely came out stronger and more resolved to continue fighting for equality,” he said.

“As I lay in bed in the hospital after the attack on me, I heard three women in the corridor talking. Thinking I was asleep, they came in one by one and kissed my hand,” Lapchick said. “I realized they were African-American nurses. When they were back in the hall, I heard one say to the others, ‘I didn’t think white people cared.’ I knew many white people who felt like me. I was simply in an historical set of circumstances that got me to and through that moment. I knew then that I had to continue.”

Lapchick has consistently argued that sports can serve to chisel away at the world’s inequities and discrimination — and that college athletics can be influential in that push for change.

“I have personally experienced the power sport has to unite people of all cultures and backgrounds,” Lapchick said. “I believe colleges and universities must take advantage of the power they have to foster camaraderie and continue to fight for equality. Student-athletes have a major role to play in standing up for justice so the establishment cannot block its path.”

Asked how he hopes to be remembered, Lapchick mentioned a workshop he attended as a young activist in the early 1970s. The facilitator instructed the participants to note what they wanted inscribed on their tombstone. As Lapchick recalls, it was an “icebreaker that I took seriously.”

Lapchick’s list for his epitaph — indeed, for his legacy — has grown through time and experience. It currently goes like this:

“He didn’t have to be Jewish to fight against anti-Semitism.

“He didn’t have to be a person of color to fight against racism.

“He didn’t have to be a woman to fight against sexism.

“He didn’t have to be gay or lesbian to fight against homophobia.

“He didn’t have to be Muslim to want to fight against Islamophobia.

“He didn’t have to be poor to fight against poverty.

“He didn’t have to have a physical or mental disability to fight for those who do.

“He did not have to be an immigrant or refugee to fight against xenophobia.

“He learned early on in his life that we are all part of the same fabric and family.

“If we embrace diversity and inclusion, then if our children have learned how to hate, we can teach them how to love. If they are waging war on one another, we can give them the tools to make peace.”