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Opinion: He’s a White former coach who worked with young Black men. You wouldn’t know it to hear Tuberville today


Opinion by Jeff Pearlman

(CNN) — Once upon a time — but really not all that long ago — Tommy Tuberville was a master salesman to young Black men in America’s inner cities.

This was before he became a United States senator with an indefensibly racist and transphobic track record. It was long before he argued that trying to diversify the military would only weaken it. And it was before he told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that White nationalists aren’t necessarily racists. (He ultimately conceded under pressure that — okay fineWhite nationalists are racists.)

No, this was back in the early 2000s, when Tuberville was in the midst of taking over a left-for-dead Auburn University football program and leading the Tigers to an undefeated season and 2004 Southeastern Conference championship. By most accounts, Tuberville was a solid but not amazing Xs and Os coach whose true strength came not in figuring out the perfect play to run on third and 12 from the Tennessee 26-yard line, but in building up the Auburn roster.

Just look back at those Tigers, whose primary stars — quarterback Jason Campbell, running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams, defensive back Carlos Rogers, offensive linemen Marcus McNeill and Ben Grubbs and defensive lineman Jay Ratliff — were all Black, all future NFL performers and all recruited by Tuberville.

But we also know Auburn’s checkered history when it comes to educating its Black recruits. Although graduation rates for Black players increased during Tuberville’s tenure as coach, the rates remained well below those of White players, and the school was also the subject of a major scandal in which some athletes were given passing grades in classes that required no attendance.

As someone who has covered sports for multiple decades and knows plenty of people who worked with Tuberville, it’s clear to me that Tuberville does what many college football coaches do, following the playbook perfected by an untold number of his predecessors.

In keeping with the long-established practice among coaches vying to secure the best talent for their teams, Tuberville would have walked into a Black recruit’s home, headed straight for the mother and father and embraced them in tight bear hugs. Then he would have raved about the smells rising off the stove, saying something like “Dang, that reminds me of my Gram’s sweet potatoes!”

Following that same playbook, Tuberville would have looked into the mother’s eyes, taken her hand in his and promised that he would watch out for her son as he would his own. “If (fill in the recruit’s name) comes to Auburn, you’ll never have to worry about him.”  This is just a guess, but I’m assuming Tuberville didn’t require many takes to pull off his cameo as an unctuous coach on the hunt for a new recruit in the 2009 film, “The Blind Side.”

And here’s the thing — the crazier-than-crazy thing: As a recruiter, Tuberville wasn’t thought to be lying about planning to take good care of his recruits. Like the vast majority of coaches, he was something of a used car salesman, throwing every this-1996 Buick Skylark-still-has-a-lot-in-her-engine line at his marks.

It always seemed to me that Tuberville did seem to care. He did show compassion. He did seem to want his players, Black and White, to excel not just in football, but also in life.

“That man can walk into a room he can meet everybody in the room, and you may see him a month later and he’ll remember what you talked about,” Ben Leard, a former Auburn quarterback, told The Washington Post. “Man, it’s a gift.”

But knowing that he has seen up close how his players and their families live — and that despite that, he appears as Alabama’s junior senator to be unmoved by their plight — Tommy Tuberville and his ilk make me sick to my stomach.

From former Packers quarterback Brett Favre allegedly benefitting from Mississippi welfare funds that were intended to help his state’s neediest and majority Black denizens (amid denials that he did anything wrong) to Tuberville defending White nationalists, it’s dumbfounding to watch those blessed to work in one of America’s most diverse landscapes — college and professional sports — learn absolutely nothing from the experience.

I witnessed another example of this in 1999, when as a young Sports Illustrated writer I profiled John Rocker, an Atlanta Braves relief pitcher who told me — over the course of an unforgettable and unforgettably terrible afternoon — that he hated foreigners, abhorred gays and thought of a Black teammate as (his words) “a fat monkey.” I remember sitting with him in his car, simultaneously riveted and horrified.

How could a man whose professional career involved so much time around so many different kinds of people carry such animus? Did he not know his preferred catcher Eddie Pérez, was a “foreigner” from Venezuela? That the “fat monkey” he referred to (first baseman Randall Simon) was a lovely man who had busted his tail to emigrate from Curaçao?  Rocker issued an apology for those remarks after receiving a fine and suspension from Major League Baseball.

But for all that, Rocker was a 25-year-old dunderhead; Tuberville has actual power. His ugly, vile ways of thinking reveal a man who — like too many White coaches I’ve covered through the decades — consider Black athletes to be little more than disposable chits to be used for their benefit.

I actually snorted aloud while listening to Tuberville defend himself by telling Collins that he couldn’t be racist because, “I was a football coach for 40 years and had the opportunity to be around more minorities than anybody up here on this Hill,” he said. Hell, some of the most racist people I’ve met are coaches who realize there are millions and millions of bucks to be made on the backs of young Black men concussing themselves, while failing to earn enough credits to actually earn a degree, en route to an eventual job stocking grocery shelves.

No lie: Not only did Tommy Tuberville make millions in football but back in 2008, after the magic wore off, Auburn paid him $5 million not to coach. That was a professional low, but his performance since joining the Senate has been even worse.

“He finally has a platform and an opportunity to really show who he is as a man, and what he feels about his former players and the communities he’s recruited these players from,” Troy Reddick, a former Auburn offensive lineman, told Andscape. “He has an understanding of how he plans [to benefit] from the existing culture and White supremacy, and he thinks this is something he has earned.”

Just last October, Tuberville told an overwhelmingly White audience in Minden, Nevada that Democrats are “pro-crime” and compared descendants of enslaved people to criminals. “They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that. Bull****! They are not owed that.”

According to Tuberville, White nationalists belong in the military but people who lost their jobs during the pandemic didn’t deserve proper unemployment payments. According to Tuberville, immigrants are “taking over, and if we don’t open our eyes, it is going to be over with.”

According to Tuberville, you can’t drive through certain neighborhoods because, “Sharia law has taken over” and  Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States.

And according to Tommy Tuberville, America is a great country that has made him what he is — a United States senator.

It is. And it has. But it also has shown why he’s the worst possible type of hypocrite.

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