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
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.''
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.''