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Going long to rectify an injustice

Going long to rectify an injustice

By Stebbins Jefferson, The Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 27, 2002

Perhaps it was because I had just returned from Sunday morning Mass, fresh in my mind a message about how we should live our faith. Or perhaps the magic of spring had put me in an all-things-are-possible mood. For whatever reason, I was most receptive when my husband called out to me, "There's an item about Doug Williams on the front page of The Post's Sports section. Be sure to read it."

Jeff often alerts me to news I might miss, especially in sports, because he knows that's the part of the newspaper I'm most likely to give short shrift. I thought, Doug Williams? I seem to recall that some quarterback by that name made spectacular plays in a Super Bowl game we watched at a Las Novias club party years ago.

Instead of mentally filing away my husband's suggestion for future reference, I immediately got the paper and read what impressed me as extraordinary breakthrough in race relations. The headline read: "Doug Williams finally gets cash from a Culverhouse." Hugh Culverhouse Jr., son of the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has given a $1 million grant to the Grambling State University football program. Mr. Williams, who has been the head coach at Grambling for the past five seasons, can use the money as he sees fit.

Mr. Culverhouse, who owns a real-estate holding company, explained that this grant is intended to redress a wrong dealt to Mr. Williams when he played for the Bucs. For five years, it seems, Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse Sr. underpaid Mr. Williams, according to National Football League standards. Although Mr. Williams took the team to the playoffs three times, the elder Culverhouse, who died in 1994, refused to improve the quarterback's initial 1983 contract offer, a slight that caused Mr. Williams to leave the team. Those Super Bowl plays I remembered were from January 1988, when he was named Most Valuable Player in leading the Washington Redskins to the championship.

"Doug deserved better," the younger Culverhouse said. With that bold admission, he highlighted the dirty little secret that too often goes unacknowledged in American society. In private business, there frequently is a two-tiered pay schedule that factors in race as more important than merit. No one talks about this disparity, but everyone knows it usually exists unchallenged. For this reason, workers doing the same job are conditioned not to disclose their salaries. The paramount reason is not so much to protect privacy as to protect a double standard for salaries and bonuses.

That unsettling reality often causes major subterranean stress that black workers must contain in order to do their jobs and that other workers must ignore. To do otherwise would not change the system and could exclude one from the race-skewed benefits. Black workers --- and sometimes women --- are condescendingly considered lucky to earn a decent salary even if it is not comparable to that paid to others.

This understanding explains in part why so many minority workers are convinced that proposals to contract state and other government jobs and services to private companies is an attempt to cancel the legal requirement that the salaries for persons doing the same job with the same amount of experience be paid the same salary. While it can be argued that this standard in government work could promote mediocre job performance, many black workers believe the alternative is a license to use tax money to dispense unequal pay.

So what impresses me most about Hugh Culverhouse Jr.'s decision to honor Mr. Williams with this gift to his alma mater is that the owner of a private business chose of his own volition to admit this painful injustice. Even $1 million cannot in any way compensate Mr. Williams personally for what he lost in salary while playing for the Bucs. The gift, however, does make the emphatic statement that a double standard of pay for work well-done is immoral, not because of a legal mandate but because a businessman's personal sense of integrity rejects such a compromise in the interest of profit.

Hugh Culverhouse Jr.'s example just may mean that a new generation of entrepreneurs feels no need to declare power of superiority by underpaying an employee who happens to be black.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for The Palm Beach Post.

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