NFF Black History Month Q&A with Lynn Swann

Tuesday, 16 February 2021 13:25

NFF Black History Month Q&A with Lynn Swann

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NFF Black History Month Q&A with Lynn Swann National Football Foundation

NFF Press Release

Hall of Famer and NFF Board Member shares his thoughts on Black History and its connections to football, his career experiences and current events.

Lynn Swann joined the National Football Foundation Board of Directors in 2011. Currently president of Swann, Inc., a marketing and consulting firm, Swann's career includes service on a number of publicly-traded, privately-held, and non-profit boards. He was previously the athletics director at his alma mater the University of Southern California from 2016-19. He played for the Trojans from 1971-73, earning consensus Frist-Team All-America honors in 1973 at wide receiver and leading the team to the 1972 national title. Swann then played nine years (1974-82) in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning four Super Bowls while being named the 1981 NFL Man of the Year for his volunteer and charity work. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. Following a 30-year career in sports broadcasting with ABC, Swann accepted an appointment from President George W. Bush as the chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, serving from 2002-05. In 2006, he was the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania.
 
What role has football played in your life?
Football has been huge for me from my start as a 12-year-old playing Pop Warner football for the Peninsula San Bruno Jets in California and the Bay Area. It was my first involvement in real competitive sports, finding out I didn't necessarily have all the assets to be very good. It was the beginning of a process that was an important base for me in self-realization and having a new experience and not having success. Football is an amazing place to find out about yourself and to test yourself. It's a crucible. It's either going to spit you out, or it's going to shape you and make you.

What made you choose to attend USC for college?
I ended up at Southern California after attending Serra High School in San Mateo, California, an all-boys Catholic high school, on a scholarship. My high school coach was Jesse Freitas, who passed away not long ago and played for the original San Francisco Dons. He cut me when I was trying out for running back. A receiver got hurt. He then asked me to come up to varsity as a sophomore to see if I could play wide receiver. And I made all-conference my first year. My senior year, we didn't have a guy to replace his son, who was our quarterback and had graduated. Coach Freitas made me the quarterback because we didn't have a guy who was as accurate as his son. So, I started playing quarterback. I was getting recruited around the country, but for the most part as a wide receiver. I was heavily recruited, certainly by Stanford, Cal and the Bay Area schools. But I wanted to go someplace where I felt comfortable, which was USC. It wasn't so much about football as an environment where I felt comfortable.
 
What made you comfortable at USC in the 1970s?
USC was not a passing school, and people would ask me: why do you want to go to USC? They don't throw the ball? But, in the 70s and being recruited across the country, I felt like USC was being extraordinarily honest with me about what was going on. Marv Goux, who was the recruiter and a defensive line coach, wasn't trying to sugarcoat it, saying if I came to USC, I was not going to break any passing records. But I enjoyed the people. I liked the people. And so, I decided to put a stake in the ground in Southern California.

What was it like being recruited as a Black student-athlete in 1970?
When I was a junior in high school, [our quarterback] Jesse Freitas was being recruited by all the schools around the country. A scout, who was visiting our high school athletic department, was looking at film of Jesse, and I happened to walk by. He stopped me and said: "Boy, I sure wish I could recruit you." I thought, he wants to recruit me, but I'm a junior and so he can't recruit me. But the reality was, he was recruiting for Tennessee, near where I was born in Alcoa, Tennessee. And he was basically saying, he couldn't recruit me because I was Black. And, you know, I didn't realize that until sometime later on.
 
What were your experiences like as a Black student-athlete at USC in the 1970s?
Going to Southern California, I was a freshman when Sam Cunningham was a running back, and the team went down to play football at Alabama in 1970. Sam runs through the Alabama football team. That game, Sam's performance, and him being Black, was certainly a catalyst and maybe a key moment for Bear Bryant to then be able to recruit Black athletes at Alabama. And then of course, after Sam did that, [Bryant] recruited John Mitchell, who became the first Black All-American at Alabama and then the school's first assistant Black coach. And he now coaches for the Pittsburgh Steelers. So, there's a ripple effect. And all those things are based on football.

You had an amazing career as a professional player with the Steelers. Did you have any experiences as a pro player that you can share with us in the context for Black History?
My career as a professional started out on kind of shaky ground. The day I got drafted, I took my two brothers and cousin out to dinner in San Francisco to celebrate. After we left the restaurant, we got stopped by the police. To make a long story short, and what is typical in a lot of young Black men's lives, we were stopped by the police, beaten up and thrown in jail for nothing. I spent the next two years fighting the San Francisco police in court. We won the case and the lawsuit. Again, that was right after I was drafted by the Steelers. So, the media had the stories all over the front page, saying, oh my, who did we draft here. So, it was trying to fight through that reputation and what was said about me at that particular time to find a place on the football team. It was a challenge, but at the end of the day, for the most part, it worked out. But it would not be the last time something of that nature would happen.
 
Can you elaborate on how you overcame the damage that was done to your reputation in Pittsburgh by the San Francisco Police Department?
I let who I was as a person speak. I let my involvement in different things around Pittsburgh in the community speak for who I am. And then I let football decide what kind of a player I was in terms of performance, ability and talent and things of that nature.

In 1974, there was no PR specialist who was sitting and saying, this is how the public is now viewing you. We've got to get you involved in X, Y, and Z to give you a different kind of reputation and clean this up because it's important to you and the game. You just went there and played football. There were none of the PR campaigns, if you will, trying to push you to be a certain kind of public persona. It came out because how you behaved and how you responded to the things that occurred to you.
 
Do you think football players should use their platform to address social issues?
I think every individual player who is concerned about something that is not related to football, not related to sports, spends their time, spends their money, spends their energy and effort to making that better by becoming involved on that particular platform. But I think we stand on very thin ice when we start to believe that because we played a sport, because we're an entertainer, that we should tell people how they should think and what they should believe in and how to act. I think people are better off seeing examples of people who care about certain things. But they have to understand that when people go watch you play football: they're going to watch your team play. They're not going for a discourse in politics, or even in social justice. But the fact that, there are examples of social justice, and people working together from all kinds of backgrounds and races and so forth is a lesson in and of itself.

How did you end up in broadcasting?
In the 70s when I got drafted by the Steelers, I always described football as America's best part-time job. You didn't make much money and only a handful of guys were making anything significant. So, I thought I'm going to play football for a few years, but what else am I going to do? I actually went back to USC and took graduate courses in TV, radio production, a writing class and a speech class. I was interested in broadcasting, and ABC asked me to do some reporting. I enjoyed it. I got a local job in Los Angeles at the KABC-TV affiliate. John Severino and Dennis Swanson ran the station at the time, and I worked in the offseason for them. When I decided to leave football after nine years, I wasn't leaving for any other reason other than to take a full-time job that was offered to me by ABC to be an announcer, covering the USFL, college football and the Olympics. The full-time job presented a very strong reason for me to leave football to pursue that career. Football was a catalyst and a base, but I never thought football was supposed to be the beginning as well as the end of it all. It was a process. It created experiences and opened other doors.
 
How did you make the switch from broadcaster to politician?
I was in broadcasting, and some folks approached me about running for governor in Pennsylvania. I wasn't interested in being a politician, if you will, but I was interested in being able to help Pennsylvania. And, I thought after talking and consulting with several people it would be an opportunity to have an impact in Pennsylvania. So, I decided to give it a shot. But you called me a politician? I think first and foremost, you have to win an election to be a politician. I did not win the election. It was a solid campaign. I think I would have been better for Pennsylvania than Ed Rendell in his second term. But it was not to be.

Did you feel like your campaign for governor helped break down racial barriers as you attempted to become the first Black governor in the history of the State of Pennsylvania?
Moving forward as a Black man in this country, born in Tennessee, and growing up in California in the 60s, any successful Black man or woman who was attempting to achieve anything, we were usually the first at what we were doing. I was only one of four Black students at Serra High School when I was a freshman. The history of high achieving Black people in America usually meant that you were the first in so many of the things that you were doing, so that part didn't faze you. Either you're going to do it, and fight through it, and reset the stage as a visible example of achievement, or you weren't.
 
What would be your advice to a young Black man who might want to follow in your footsteps?
The key is being able to ask the question. Very often, it's not about what you know. It's about what you don't know. You can't be afraid to ask a question. A lot of athletes are afraid of what they don't know and often hide they don't have the answers. All of sudden an athlete has millions of dollars, and suddenly he's supposed to be a financial expert. We've all heard the stories of athletes who made a lot of money only to go broke. They don't have the understanding of a financial expert to make better decisions. The public can put expectations on young Black men in America of how they're supposed to handle certain things, but they don't necessarily give them a chance to kind of grow into it. So, you've got to be able to ask the questions, you've got to be able to understand that there's a lot you don't know.

What would be your advice to a young Black person on how to handle racism that he/she might experience?
I think you just have to continually grow, be aware and be aware of your surroundings. What is racism? Is it someone who walks up to you and tells you to your face that they don't like you because of the color of your skin? That is far easier to deal with than someone who smiles and says, "Hey, I think you're doing a great job. You speak so well. You're a credit to your people." But when they go back to their office; they're not going to hire you. He's hiding his racism or his biases. So, you just constantly have to be aware. But you can't be so on guard that you think everybody has got it in for you. You're going to have to judge each situation as it arises.
 
Do you have a favorite Black historical figure?
I don't have a single Black person who was my role model. My mom and dad were great role models in terms of what they aspired for us. I was fortunate to see other Black people achieving and doing things. Growing up, my dance instructor, Les Williams, was a Red Tail pilot in World War II. He passed away. But before I played football, I took tap and jazz dance lessons at his studio. He was a role model in terms of what he had been through and achieved. So, you find people doing great things along the way. I think it's important to continue to highlight people of color who continue to achieve and who are making it work. But their successes, you might see them at the end while they're at the top of the ladder. But people don't always see what they've gone through to get there. And those are important steps in terms of your work ethic and perseverance, and gaining experience.

How have things changed for African-American student-athletes at USC from when you attended in the 1970s to when you became athletics director?
It's an ongoing kind of issue. When you look across the country, every conference, you don't see the roadblocks to stop minorities from being able to be a part of a particular team. So, those walls have been knocked down. You see diversity throughout college football, every conference and every division. And there continues to be change with more opportunities for coaches and administrators, and more people who aspire to be administrators will have the opportunities to do just that. But I think we should be cautious.

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