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In My Own Words: We just want R-E-S-P-E-C-T

  • (Top) Erik Griffin, a 1986 graduate of Carrier Mills-Stonefort and pictured coaching for Meridian High School, has dealt with his fair share of racial injustice both as a player and as a coach.

    (Top) Erik Griffin, a 1986 graduate of Carrier Mills-Stonefort and pictured coaching for Meridian High School, has dealt with his fair share of racial injustice both as a player and as a coach.
    SPYDER DANN | mdann@dailyregister.com

 
By Coach Erik Griffin
updated: 6/15/2020 10:16 AM

Editors Note: This is the first in a two-part series from former Carrier Mills-Stonefort standout Erik Griffin, about the challenges he and other African Americans faced playing and coaching basketball here in southern Illinois.

Aretha Franklin is most famous for singing "Respect."
The Queen of Soul sang "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me," and given the current situation in our country, never in recent history have seven letters and seven words meant so much.
I have been involved with basketball in southern Illinois in nearly every way imaginable for over 40 years, spanning five decades. I have experienced quite a bit and have seen the game evolve over that time. Unfortunately one of the things that has not changed is the double standard and lack of respect that exists for African American athletes and coaches. Ironically, those issues are at the core of what currently has our nation in an uproar.
Basketball, and sports in general, are often seen as great equalizers, and can also mirror real life in many different ways.
Team sports can unite people of different races, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, etc., in the pursuit of a common goal. The clichés about the power of teamwork are too numerous to name and I have used plenty myself as a coach.
On the surface, there is a lot of truth in the sayings one may see painted on locker room walls or on the back of team T-shirts. But the absence of respect and the existence of double standards will make it impossible for even the most talented of teams to find long-term success.
Let's transfer that to real life and it still rings true. Long term success between people of different races will not happen if we do not learn to respect one another and put aside the double standards.
Everyone has been the victim of disrespect and double standards at some point in their lives.
It stings much worse when you are victimized because of the color of your skin. There is a different kind of hatred and nastiness attached that is difficult to explain unless you have experienced it for yourself. I did not understand why an opposing player chose to call me a racial epithet during one of my first fifth grade games in 1978. I recall it angered me to the point of tears and afterward my coach, Jim Bynum, had to go to great lengths to calm me down.
Replaying the event with my father, David "Judge" Griffin, when I got home, he let me know it would not be the last time I would hear that word. He explained to me there were two responses I could choose from when others stooped that low: Physically react and get thrown out of a game, or mentally react by keeping my emotions in check and upset my opponent because I did not lash out.
"Don't let their words make you mad, use them to make you better," was what my dad told me. Pretty tough for a 10-year-old to figure out, but boy did that come in handy as I progressed through the game.
I played for some great men in grade school and high school whom I still hold in very high regard. Jim Bynum, Danny Chambers, Bill Brown, Bob Lane and Jeff Richey treated me with the utmost respect under their watch. Not because they needed me to win basketball games, but because they cared about me as a person and it was the right thing to do.
Coach Richey once told us something to the effect that not working hard required much more thought than actually working hard because it was a conscious decision to not give our best effort.
Let's allow sports to mirror real life. It really takes quite a bit of effort to be disrespectful and hate someone because they are different. We were not born to hate, so it has to be a conscious decision every day to treat someone poorly and inhumanely because of the color of their skin. That does take much more effort and thought than waking up to simply treat everyone as we would like ourselves to be treated.
I will be very blunt and say there were places in southern Illinois that were tough to play in if you were African American. I and African Americans I played against from other schools have shared with each other stories and our own stories of these encounters.
Playing for Carrier Mills, I knew -- was actually warned by older players -- which opposing teams and fans I could expect to give us the business. By my senior year it was nothing new to me to hear racial remarks from opposing players and fans.
But I had learned by then what my father meant earlier by using those taunts to make me better and it served as motivation. That advice was much more effective than any elbow or cheap shot I could have thrown, but it only set the stage for what I would experience later.
Things did not improve very much as I transitioned from a player to a coach and a parent. In a pathetic case of history repeating itself, my oldest daughter and some of her African American teammates were called the same racial slur as a fifth grader in the same town and same gym -- only instead of it coming from an opposing player as in my situation, it was an adult who spewed this hatred.
As angry and confused as I was hearing it from another kid, I was more angered and it was more confusing to explain to my 11-year-old daughter why an adult would be so disrespectful and do this to a child. Thank goodness for the wisdom of my father because I shared the same lesson with her that he had with me 27 years prior.
The double standards I battled as head coach at Meridian High School were numerous. I was one of few African American head coaches in southern Illinois and had predominantly African American teams. My players were often faced with the same issues I dealt with when I was in their shoes. By this time I was well aware of the perceptions and stereotypes that existed and wanted my players to be treated with the same respect as their counterparts, just as my coaches wanted for me.
My proudest on-court moment during my four years at Meridian was our run to the Class A state championship game in 2015. My players received just as many compliments for the class, dignity, and sportsmanship they displayed as they did for their performance on the court.
We talked several times during that season and the three that followed about perceptions and stereotypes and how to deal with them. We also discussed how those same perceptions and stereotypes would unfortunately be present as they became adults and how to effectively deal with them as well.
What I am most proud of though is those young men worked together to change the culture of double standards that existed and were able to earn respect for the way they carried themselves and represented the school instead of being seen as just basketball players.
However, I am not proud that I have to make that statement in the year 2020.

Coming Friday: Since Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier in 1947, African American athletes have been revered while in uniform but seen by many as second-class citizens away from their sport.

• Erik Griffin is a 1986 graduate of Carrier Mills-Stonefort High School and a 1991 graduate of SIU. Now a basketball coach, he has coached at Carrier Mills-Stonefort, Harrisburg and most recently Meridian High School.