Akron hire evokes controversial memories
Before Keith Dambrot became the new head men’s basketball coach at the University of Akron March 9 it was questionable whether or not he would ever become a head coach again.
In 1993, Dambrot was fired as the coach of CMU after using a racial slur in the locker room in front of several minority players and a black assistant coach.
“This was a term that was used throughout the basketball program,” said sociology professor Robert Newby, “It was after a loss and the players all had their heads down and coach Dambrot asked them if he could use the term. They told him to go ahead and he told them that ‘they needed to play more like niggers.’ What coach didn’t take into account, is there is a difference between when black people refer to each other that way than when a white person does.”
The timing of Dambrot’s comment seemed to come at an already tumultuous time for race relations within the athletics department.
March 29, 1993 — Story breaks of Dambrot’s remarks in Central Michigan Life
April 2, 1993 — Dambrot given four-day suspension
85 students lead a silent protest through campus
April 5, 1993 — President of the Organization for Black Unity predicts hostility if Dambrot is not fired
April 7, 1993 — Students present former University President Leonard Plachta with a list of 15 demands to diversify the campus — including firing Dambrot.
April 12, 1993 — CMU fires Dambrot
April 15, 1993 — Dambrot announces lawsuit against CMU. Leonard Drake named as interim basketball coach. Plachta makes contact with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to help ease racial tensions on campus.
April 20, 1993 — Nine of Dambrot’s former players join him in lawsuit against CMU administrators
April 22, 1993 — Camera crew from CNN comes to CMU to do story on racial sensitivity on campus
April 27, 1993 — Former University President Leonard Plachta announces six- part diversity plan
The women’s track and field team was involved in a situation where a white coach had given one of her black athletes a bunch of bananas for her leg cramps. The situation was interpreted by some as the coach referring to her athlete as a monkey, Newby said.
This situation was brought to light at a student forum that discussed race relations. Many students then began demonstrations on campus, which drew attention to Dambrot’s comments. The basketball situation became a regular part of water-cooler talk, Newby said.
“The student that revealed (Dambrot’s comment) had already dropped off of the basketball team,” Newby said. “There were small rumblings, but basically the women’s track situation brought Dambrot to light.”
Dambrot responded with a written statement that was published in Central Michigan Life.
“The term that I used in an urban cultural context has positive, negative and neutral connotations,” the 1993 statement said. “It can be a term of personal affection and endearment.”
His players seemed to agree, as only one come forward to accuse their coach of any wrongdoing.
“Each (player) said it was used in a positive way and it is a term they use,” said former Athletics Director Dave Keilitz in a March 29, 1993 CM Life article. “The term was not used in a degrading or demeaning way.”
The administration reacted by putting Dambrot on paid suspension, or “what was basically a paid vacation,” Newby said.
Dambrot was not disciplined by former CMU President Leonard Plachta, even after being confronted by the Association of Faculty and Staff of Color. Only after a press conference did the situation get resolved, Newby said, when Dambrot was then fired by the university.
CMU’s basketball program was already under scrutiny for incidents that occurred while current Miami University men’s basketball coach Charlie Coles, who is black, was at the helm. Coles was fired, which mainly stemmed from a player on his team that was accused of raping two different women, Newby said.
Newby also said that Dambrot was brought in to present a cleaner image for CMU basketball.
What followed, however, was a public relations disaster and one of the most influential cases dealing with race relations and free speech in recent memory.
“I’m amazed at how often I go to conferences and they talk about the Dambrot case,” said University Council Eileen Jennings.
The case has been cited at least once in 61 different cases dealing with free speech among other civil rights. Dambrot sued CMU for wrongful termination and for violating his First Amendment free speech rights.
Courts ruled that while CMU’s Discriminatory Harassment policy was unconstitutional, the word “nigger” was not protected speech. Dambrot earned a victory in the civil rights portion of the case and was awarded attorney’s fees.
Dambrot lost his wrongful termination case, however, as the courts ruled that he was let go for good enough reason, saying his use of the derogatory term was not protected in this climate.
The case was appealed, and the higher courts held up the lower court’s decision in full. The case had an immense impact on the judicial system nationwide and the impact that it had on campus was also large.
“It got kind of ugly,” said Matt Crossman, who was a news editor at CM Life during the incident. “A lot of accusations were being brought against the paper and some were true and some were not. There was a lot of tension on campus.”
Much of the tension revolved around race, but Crossman said there was no true split between the races.
“It wasn’t that all whites had one opinion and that all African American’s had another,” he said. “There were definitely people that felt that way, but it was never a black-and-white issue; it was always a shade of gray.”
Crossman said even though it was a big issue at CMU while it was going on, other schools did not seem to see it as a big deal.
“Everyone else was able to look at it as what it was, a coach saying something profoundly stupid,” he said.
After Dambrot was fired, Leonard Drake was brought in as the new head coach. Drake and Coles are still the only black head coaches to ever be on the sidelines for any CMU sport.
The hiring of Drake seemed to be more than a coincidence to some around campus.
“There was a lot of speculation (that it was a PR hire), but he was very qualified and it would be unfair to Drake to say that,” Crossman said. “I’m sure that it played some kind of factor, but he was considered even before Dambrot was hired.”
Newby said that if a situation such as this would happen today, the campus may have an even stronger reaction.
“The national climate was not as bad as it is today,” he said. “If it were to happen now, it would probably be more explosive.”