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The two Americas as seen by a visionary who has experienced both

It was the type of day I’d been longing to experience again ever since the pandemic put professional and personal lives on pause, an actual press conference staged on campus at Robert Morris as opposed to exclusively on Zoom.

But Monday wasn’t just about formally announcing the RMU men’s and women’s basketball teams would be joining the Horizon League, and the football team was becoming a member of the Big South Conference.

Nothing can just be about sports anymore.

“I want to take a moment to acknowledge what a difficult few weeks this has been in the life of our nation,” RMU president Dr. Chris Howard acknowledged. “The death of George Floyd has forced our nation and all of our institutions to confront some unpleasant realities and truths as we move forward in our day-to-day lives.

“I’m here to tell you as a former student-athlete and a person who believes in the role of athletics, athletics has in the past, can, should and will make a difference in dealing with issues of race in this country.”

Howard’s qualifications for taking a lead role in making such a difference are as unimpeachable as his resolve to do so is unwavering.

“I try to lead effectively as an African-American leading a university that’s predominantly white,” Howard said. “There are not tons of us that do this, that are afforded this opportunity, for lots of reasons.

“So I try to be an effective president first and foremost.”

As for Howard’s aforementioned qualifications, Athletic Director Chris King, thankfully, read the resume in the event any in attendance at the UPMC Events Center might have been unaware.

“He’s a distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy,” King noted in introducing Howard. “He’s a Rhodes Scholar. He has a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford. He has an MBA with distinction from the Harvard Business School. He has a Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan.

“He’s a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. He’s a recent member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. He’s the chairman of the NCAA Honors Committee. He was an Academic All-American as a running back at Air Force and was a winner of the Campbell Trophy as the nation’s top football scholar-athlete. He’s also a member of the CoSIDA Academic All-American Hall of Fame and he’s a winner of the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award.”

So Howard’s words carry weight in a myriad of lanes, particularly when fielding the type of inquiry that qualifies as uncomfortable:

Has he accomplished all he has because of who he is or in spite of who he is?

“That’s a tough question,” Howard acknowledged. “If you’re not asking that question on June 15, 2020, when are you going to ask it?

“As an African-American man it has been uniquely challenging for me and for black men across America. I’ve always said that my race has been either a multiplier or a divider, it hasn’t been a subtracter or an adder. And what I mean by that, when things go poorly I’ve heard, ‘Of course, I knew that. It’s what happens to guys like that.’ When things go well it’s, ‘Oh, wow. All that and he happens to be black? Wow.’

“My mom told me when I was a kid, you’re going to have to work harder. You’re going to have to be more diligent. You’re going to have to be more aware because your margin of error is lower than your white counterparts. That’s what I was raised with and I’ve tried my best to live up to it. I’m not saying it’s fair but that’s the way I grew up and that’s the mantra my mom gave me and I still live with it today.

“Having said that, this is a wonderful nation. Opportunities do abound, but we have some issues we have to address. I could tell you some stories but I’m not going to tell you now because they’re not unique to me. Coach Clark (RMU football head coach Bernard) could tell you some stories, as well. Every black man, black woman can tell you similar stories. What’s interesting now going forward is this is a seminal moment in our nation’s history.”

That isn’t hyperbole, but nor has Howard lost hope.

“You mentioned Barack Obama, he likes to quote (Abraham) Lincoln and say, ‘Our union is not yet perfected but we can do some things that make it better,’” Howard said.

“Rest assured, you’re not going to address something in four days, four months or four years it took 400 years to create. So we are thoughtful, we are humbled but we’re ready.”

It’s high time such leaders were followed.

Photo Courtesy of Robert Morris Athletics

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