Lying in a hospital bed with the “N”-word carved in his stomach, a hernia, a concussion and liver and kidney damage, Richard Lapchick was tended to by three African-American nurses. He was attacked in 1978 as a retaliation to his efforts against apartheid in South Africa.
“Each one of them leaned down and kissed my hand thinking I was asleep. And when they went back out to the corridor, I heard one of them say to the other two, ‘I didn’t think white people cared,’” Lapchick said. “What they said that night had a powerful impact on me deciding to continue to do what I was doing.”
The 70-year-old Lapchick, who serves as the chair of UCF’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program, was named one of Beyond Sport’s Inspirational 50 people on Oct. 26 after spending the greater part of his adult life utilizing sports as a platform to create social change.
His initiatives in diversity, racial justice and lasting opportunities for young athletes helped earn him a spot alongside Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, David Beckham, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson.
“To be mentioned in the same breath with some of the people on that list was humbling and inspiring to me,” he said. “They’ve all inspired me over the years.”
Lapchick said Ali and Billy Jean King, who he’s become personal friends with over the years, have particularly inspired him by using their roles in sports to epitomize being agents of change.
“I think that we have the ability, because of the sports platform, to reach so many more people,” Lapchick said. “It’s the broadest cultural common denominator in our society and in most societies around the world.”
The use of sports as a vehicle has allowed Lapchick’s message to carry a stronger voice, said Arnie Fielkow, president and CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association and a longtime friend of Lapchick.
“A sports’ locker room is really a conglomeration of different races, religions [and] backgrounds, and [sports] captures people’s attention on a global basis because of fan interest,” Fielkow said.
Lapchick has integrated the values of diversity and community service into the UCF Sport Business Management graduate program.
In 2002, he launched The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which allows students to facilitate social change through the release of the critically acclaimed Racial and Gender Report Card.
The annual release provides a study of the hiring practices of major professional and college sport leagues and the sports media in the U.S., an initiative which Lapchick described as one of his favorites.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the publication of these racial and gender report cards has put pressure on all those leagues to do better,” he said. “I think we’re lagging way behind in hiring women in leadership roles and decision-making roles on those teams in college athletics departments.”
In addition to helping shift the climate of inequity in sports, Lapchick has initiated programs aimed to prepare professional and young athletes to inspire change outside the platform by utilizing their positions as role models.
“It’s not just that you can do better on these issues yourself, although that’s a primary mission in terms of what we’re trying to convey to [students], but that’s because they are athletes and other people are listening to them,” he said.
The initiatives to urge athletes to use their status to convey relevant messages extend to the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, an organization created by Lapchick in 1985 as the first-ever degree-completion program for former student-athletes.
His program has resulted in 33,900 student-athletes returning to NCAS-member schools to pursue degrees — 15,000 of whom have graduated.
“I can’t think of anyone who has done a better job of taking on social issues and making a difference,” said Judith Sweet, the National Collegiate Athletics Association senior vice president for Championships and Education Services. “Every experience that I’ve had in interacting with him, he is so consistently caring and sensitive to positions of diversity and inclusion and making sure that people around him know the importance of social issues.”
Lapchick, who earned his doctoral degree in international race relations at the University of Denver in 1970, has written more than 550 articles and given more than 2,800 public speeches — including ones in the U.S. Senate, the European Parliament and the United Nations — and is now working on his 17th book.
His influence has naturally extended from the professional world to his personal life over the years.
In a blog post on the NCAS website, Lapchick’s daughter, Emily Pasnak-Lapchick, wrote that her father gave her the perception that it was normal for all people — no matter what race, gender or class — to live and achieve equality and peace together.
“Growing up with a father whom the world admired is a remarkable thing. It meant that my every day was infused with the values of equality and justice,” Pasnak-Lapchick said on the NCAS blog site.
These principles were first instilled into Lapchick himself from his father, Joe Lapchick, a professional basketball Hall-of-Famer who taught him the message of standing up for justice and never blocking its path.
“I think his father was a great mentor for him, and a great example of the things he did,” said Floyd Keith, former director of the Black Coaches Association and longtime friend. “It’s in his DNA. If you took chromosomes from Richard, social justice would be one of them.”
When Lapchick was 5 years old, he would pick up the extension phone in his house only to hear people shouting racial epithets at his father in condemnation of his social change efforts, including signing one of the first African-American players to the NBA in 1950.
“I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that people didn’t like the person who was my best friend in the world,” Lapchick said of his father.
It’s been 65 years since Lapchick was that young boy, but little did he know his father would have been such a catalyst for developing his lifelong passion for social justice.
“My mission today is to motivate people to get involved, and that’s why I do a lot of public speaking. Their first response is going to be, what can I possibly do?” Lapchick said. “Because it’s so overwhelming, but to give people a sense that they can tackle a piece of it, and those pieces can come together to create the type of change that ultimately can change an entire country like South Africa.”
Daniela Marin is the Entertainment Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.
Paige Wilson is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @ByPaigeWilson or email her at PaigeW@CentralFloridaFuture.com.