Update: Now with audio…
On July 14, while watching President Obama describe the recently concluded nuclear agreement with Iran, Bruce Pearl couldn’t help it. He tweeted the following:
The tweet got a mainly positive response from Pearl’s followers. The media reaction, however, was nil (until now).
The situation gave us the opportunity to talk with Pearl about a lot of things, important to him but having little to do with the game of basketball, in the following interview.
TWER: Did you get a lot of response to your tweet about the Iran nuclear deal from the media?
Pearl: This is the first time I have been asked about it.
TWER: Were you disappointed?
Pearl: No. It was along those lines of walking that fine line between what’s my place and what’s my role. I’m a basketball coach at Auburn. And when you get involved in certain things politically, whether correct or incorrect, you put yourself in a position where someone can criticize – not so much my position, but my making it public.
TWER: Is that frustrating, because you’re a coach you’re expected to only talk about basketball-related things?
Pearl: I’ve not done that often. Trust me when I tell you that I thought long and hard before I hit the button. But specific to that situation, when I heard President Obama talk about years of animosity, I’m sitting there, knowing that a neighbor of the state of Israel wants its destruction, I would think that the word “animosity” doesn’t fit that.
I want peace in the Middle East. There have been times in our history when Arabs and Jews lived side by side in peace and had so much more in common. I know that most of the Iranian people don’t want war with the people of Israel. I know that. But I do take their leaders at their word.
TWER: So this is the exception that proves the rule. It takes something like this to overcome your caution, especially to a large audience.
Pearl: You definitely pick your spots. For me, as an American Jew, this particular issue really speaks to me. I’m particularly concerned about anti-Semitism around the world. It’s growing very fast. I just want us to be able to get along and respect each other and love each other and tolerate each other’s differences. And that’s been my life’s work.
TWER: I guess it’s different when you’re talking, not about partisan politics, but about the end to a social ill. There you’ll stand up and be counted.
Pearl: We were asked to make comment about the Confederate flag. And we commented about it, basically taking the stance that because it is such an offensive symbol to so many, it doesn’t belong in a public place. However, there are those in our country who don’t look at it as a racist symbol, that look at it as a sign of the Confederacy, and I respect that. But it doesn’t belong in a public place. I was asked to make a public statement about it, and I did.
I took a stance against Arne Duncan, the secretary of education. I was the head coach at Tennessee, and he had some comments that involved intercollegiate athletics and education. I have traveled all over this country, and I’ve seen the incredible differences within states, counties, and towns of the secondary public education that’s offered, and I just don’t think that’s fair. I am not a socialist by any stretch of the imagination; I’m a fairly conservative person. However, when it comes to public education, and opportunities for all, I’m about as socialist as they come. And because of being in coaching for over 30 years, I have gone into schools, both inner city and rural America, and seen the tremendously unfair differences in the support and the quality of instruction, and it’s just not right, based on property taxes. And I have made public comment about that.
(Note: Here is the story, about Pearl answering Duncan’s criticism of basketball program graduation rate.)
TWER: Have you always enjoyed teaching about more than just basketball?
Pearl: My value is much more as a teacher than a coach. If all I was here to do was coach basketball, it wouldn’t be very fulfilling. My ministry is making a difference in young people’s lives, changing lives, saving lives. And we’re 5 for 5 the last 18 months graduating kids, and that matters as much as any win-loss record. When we lose them to either ineligibility or a drug test, I take it personally, that we weren’t good enough to save them.
I ask to speak at Camp War Eagle. I try to talk to those freshmen like I talk to my own team, and challenge them to take advantage of this opportunity, and raise the level of expectations they have for themselves and just motivate them, challenge them, and see if there is something I can say that would be encouraging enough to just get their mind ready to take advantage of this place. They think I’m going to talk about the basketball team; I don’t say a word about it. It’s not why I’m doing it.
I also like talking to business ethics classes, because I’m a perfect example of having made some very public mistakes, and working through that, and some of the ethical choices you have to make every day, and openly discussing the bad decisions I made, how that affected my family and my coaching staff. In other words, can they learn from my success and from my failures?
TWER: Do you talk to your players about issues like Ferguson?
Pearl: Absolutely. I talk to them about trying to break down stereotypes. Our team GPA is above a 3.0 overall, and that doesn’t happen very much at all in men’s basketball, and that’s breaking down a stereotype right there.
We are far from perfect. We are not always on time, but we run when we’re not. We’re trying to implement some hard rules about going to class and paying attention and not bringing in your cellphones and sitting where you’re supposed to sit and listening and competing in the classroom. I know we’re not perfect, but we’re working on it. And that’s how you break the stereotype.
A great example would be, if you can be two semesters above a 3.0, you can qualify for all-SEC. When you put on your resume that you’re an athlete, some may think, “Oh yeah, you played at Auburn. The only reason why you were on scholarship is that you were an athlete.” But then when you add that academic-all conference, it separates you.
So that’s one thing I try to teach our guys, that we’re constantly in a place where we can separate ourselves. We’re in a league, there are 14 teams. We’re trying to separate ourselves. You’re trying to get a job, in an interview, you’ve got to separate yourself. In that job, and you want to get promoted and be successful, you’ve got to separate yourself. So one of the things you need to do, to do that, is breaking down those stereotypes.
I’m a guy who provides my players with a lot of freedom on the court. Certain things aren’t negotiable: how hard they play. I pick my spots where I put my discipline. And so we talk about their dress, their hair, how they’re perceived. And through a maturation of time, trying to create a different culture as role models for younger people, who watch my basketball players and how they act and dress and look and wear their hair. I don’t make them do certain things, but we talk about them.
TWER: How do you talk about it so it’s not hostile or condescending?
Pearl: I want them to pull their pants up. When I see them, I tell them, “Pull your pants up.” We address it. But there are choices I would like them to make, not just be forced to make them. If they come to it on their own, through teaching and different lessons, they’re not going to do it just because they’re forced to. You force someone to do it, they’re really not doing it. I want them to do it because they understand the difference that they’re making.
TWER: Have you always been politically minded?
Pearl: Probably. I always pay attention to the world.
TWER: Was it something your parents instilled in you? Was it done at the dinner table or as part of the greater community.
Pearl: Totally the dinner table. Keep in mind that I was born 15 years after they opened the doors at Auschwitz. And again the world was silent, and I go back to that, and it definitely affects me. There are certain things that I’m not going to be silent about.
TWER: And your parents, having heard and read about the horror of the Holocaust, wanted you to know.
Pearl: No question. And I want others to know. I want it talked about. Also, as a teacher, I want our players to know where we are in the world, and these may be some of the most wonderful times this world has ever had, but at the same time, it also can be a very dangerous and very fragile place. And I want them to try to be in tune with that.
TWER: Was going to Boston College a part of that education?
Pearl: No question. I went to BC as an athlete. Growing up as an athlete, I was breaking down stereotypes. Being Jewish and being an athlete was a total stereotype breakdown. There was a lot of anti-Semitism growing up in Boston, because Boston was a great ethnic town. Still is, but there were sections where the Irish lived, and the Italians lived, and the Portuguese lived, and the Puerto Ricans, and the Jews and the blacks. I mean, there were ghettos. And if you got crossed up in the wrong one … And then in 1972, forced busing. Very hostile. I was 12. I was there. I saw it.
Here’s the biggest thing, On sports teams, we are color-blind. We don’t pay any attention to how you pray, the color of your skin, or where you live. It’s Team 6 v. Team 5. It’s red v. black. It’s the Celtics v. the Knicks. And it’s us against them.
Kids at a young age are so much more tolerant of each other’s differences than adults. And so I grew up as an athlete, putting teams together, which I’m still doing now, and not quite understanding why we need to argue or fight about our differences.
And so I went to BC not to go up there and be a tough guy but just for kids who had not been exposed to many Jewish people. I wasn’t any better than them, and I wasn’t any worse. That ignorance is just a lack of exposure.
One of the things that I was reading about, and I think that it was maybe Singapore. In public housing, they were keeping quotas on how many Muslims, Sunnis, Shia, Christians, white, black, whatever it was, and they were forcing a mixture in every building. They made them live together, rather than living in ghettos and separate as we naturally tend to do. And the result has been an incredible rebirth of a greater sense of community, a greater tolerance of difference, and it’s really working.
TWER: Do you see yourself speaking out more as you get older?
Pearl: I would imagine that I probably will. At the same time, like for example, whatever I’m saying now, if people read this or they hear me, and they disagree, I apologize. I don’t mean to offend anybody. Having worked for ESPN, I understand the importance of being politically correct. And if you do get outside that realm too far, there’s not a place for you. There’s some snapback.
So on that first tweet, I listened to the president live, and here’s the deal. I support our president. I pray for him every day. I will follow him. He is our leader.
I definitely want to support our president in every way, shape or form I can. But we’re not always going to agree, and one of the things that I did during this process was, I wanted to hear what liberal Democrats were saying in support of this. I want peace. And if this treaty could help bring peace, I’m all for it. But I didn’t see it.
There’s a fine line. I’m an American Jew. This is my home; that’s not my homeland. I’m an American first. But both religiously and in my study of the Bible, I’m going to stay with Israel. I want Israel to do everything it can to try and solve the problems of the Palestinians and the oppression. Israel takes security very seriously, and they have to. Unfortunately, because that has got to be their priority for survival, it does sometimes negatively impact the lives of some of their Arab and/or Palestinian neighbors because of the threats that are coming from the leadership. I hate that.
Jay Wright from Villanova, was over in Israel. He’s back now. I want to text him and see how his trip was. He was over there doing basketball clinics bringing Israeli and Palestinian kids together. In fact, he was in Ramallah for part of the time. I told him I want to do it next year, if I can.
John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at JohnCarvalhoSports.com. Find him on Twitter at @John_P_Carvalho. Read his previous columns here.
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