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Bengals removed, concerned

Sports not boycott's focus

By Kevin Goheen, Post staff reporter

Eric Ogbogu returned to his hotel room the other night, turned on his television and saw a story about former President Bill Clinton. Clinton, the story explained, was being asked to come to town to help with the city's race relations problems.

''I was like, "Is there racial problems out here like that?' '' said Ogbogu, a defensive end who signed with the Bengals as a free agent last week.

A native of Tarrytown, N.Y., just north of New York City, Ogbogu has seen his share of police-community racial struggles, but he is new to those issues facing Cincinnati.

Because of their status as professional athletes, members of the Reds and Bengals are visible figures in and around Cincinnati. Yet, while leaders of groups heading the economic boycott against the city have been successful in getting entertainers such as Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg and musician Wyclef Jean to cancel shows in Cincinnati, they have never approached either of the city's two major professional teams or their players on the subject.

''I know all of the groups have discussed it, but I can only speak for our group and say it has never been done,'' said Victoria Straughn of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Justice. ''We'd like to give an opportunity to them to first speak their minds and voice their opinions without us having to ask them.''

Said Rev. Damon Lynch III, the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine and the head of the Black United Front: ''We focused our attention on conventions and other things. We didn't focus on sports entertainment, but not because it's unimportant. They don't have to be asked to get involved. The need is often times the call.''

Just how much their voices would mean was a concern of several Bengals. Most do not live here during the offseason and aren't as connected to the situation as might be believed. Their job is to play football, and that is their main focus. The issue has been discussed in and out of the locker room, but it has never been a divisive issue among the players.

For defensive end Vaughn Booker and cornerback Rodney Heath, though, the situation hits closer to home. Both players, along with offensive lineman John Jackson, grew up in Cincinnati. Booker was raised in the West End, while Heath, whose father was a Cincinnati police officer, is from Western Hills. Both live in Cincinnati. Jackson, a Woodward High School graduate, now makes his home in San Diego.

''I don't think we have to be asked,'' said Booker, who attended Taft High and the University of Cincinnati. ''You don't have to be a football player to be able to voice your opinion. White or black people should stand up and do what's right.

''It's sad to see the city still struggling to get past the situation. It's definitely a situation that, being an African-American, we can't really look past.''

Special teams coach Al Roberts said two free agents who visited but did not sign with the Bengals wanted to know about the racial tensions. They had seen or read news reports and had questions. Roberts, who didn't disclose the players' names, said he couldn't say how much of a factor the racial issues were to each player, only that they were a concern.

Cornerback Jeff Burris, who signed with the Bengals as a free agent, came to Cincinnati fully aware of what is going on. He's played the last four seasons with Indianapolis and was looking for a place that was the best fit for him as a football player.

''Being in the sport that you are in, you have a lot of influence,'' Burris said. ''If we as professionals approach it the right way, I think that will have a reflection on how other people see things.''

Eric Thomas isn't surprised that free agents are asking about the racial tensions. A former Pro Bowl cornerback who played with the Bengals in 1987-92, Thomas now co-hosts a nightly sports talk show on radio station WDBZ-AM (1230). While his show is about sports, the race issue is a topic he's had to deal with on more than one occasion.

''I tell people that just because you're in a position doesn't mean you shy away from talking about it,'' said Thomas. ''We don't condemn Cincinnati. We tell people that the boycotters certainly have a strong position. . . . Some things need to change.

''It's important that the athletes, because they are in a position to impact what goes on, they certainly need to have a voice and I think a lot of them wouldn't mind that.''

Thomas believes one of the reasons the boycott groups haven't approached either the Reds or Bengals is because players on both teams are involved in community activities. Linebacker Takeo Spikes, offensive lineman Willie Anderson and running back Corey Dillon all have charitable foundations that focus on helping inner-city youth.

''If anything is going to change, it's going to take more than Takeo Spikes or Louis Farrakhan or Martin Luther King (III),'' said Spikes. ''It's going to take a whole group of people together united as one.''

Publication date: 05-07-02
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