Editor’s note: This story first ran in 2004 and is being reprinted in honor of Nelson Mandela
On Valentine’s Day, 1978, two men in stocking masks barged into Richard Lapchick’s Norfolk, Va., office. They tied him up, and for the next hour they smashed metal file cabinet drawers into his head. Before they left an hour later, they carved the word “niger” into his stomach with scissors.
The word they had meant to write, of course, was “nigger.”
Their reason? Lapchick dared to challenge South African apartheid.
The attack failed to hinder his resolve. Lapchick’s civil rights work intensified, and when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s president in 1994, Lapchick attended at Mandela’s invite.
“As we drove to the inauguration, I saw the military hardware that oppressed his people, knowing that within hours it would be turned over to this man of peace,” recalls Lapchick, MA international studies ’70, PhD international studies ’73. “I knew at that moment that anything and everything was possible.”
Lapchick, 58, directs the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and is a key player in numerous organizations dedicated to civil rights and education.
His father, Joe Lapchick, was a former NBA player and coach of the New York Knicks. In 1950, Joe Lapchick signed the first African-American player in the history of the NBA. When he was 5 years old, Richard Lapchick saw the image of his father hanging from a tree in effigy.
Although Lapchick himself harbored early dreams of NBA stardom, that changed in high school when he visited the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. “I was never the same person after that,” he says.
Lapchick chose the University of Denver for his graduate studies because of several professors — including Steve Hunter, George Shepherd, Tilden LeMelle and Arthur Gilbert — who were well known for their civil rights and anti-war activities. His dissertation on how South Africa used sports as a foreign policy tool was published as the first of his 10 books.
In 1977, Lapchick founded ACCESS, an organization dedicated to ending all sports contact with South Africa until apartheid was abolished.
The 1978 attack confirmed for Lapchick that his work was having a significant impact. It also taught him one other rewarding lesson.
“On my first night in the hospital, three African-American women were talking in the hallway,” Lapchick recalls. “Thinking I was asleep, each one came in and kissed my hand. Then I heard one of them say, ‘I didn’t think white people cared.’”
Lapchick has assisted many causes. He spent six years as a senior liaison officer at the United Nations and then formed the Center for the Study of Sport in Society (CSSS) at Northeastern University in 1984. The CSSS helps pro athletes who didn’t graduate to finish their college degrees and then speak to young people about balancing athletics and education. The organization, which he now serves as director emeritus after 17 years as director, later expanded to include Project TEAMWORK, a violence prevention program.
In 1985, CSSS founded the National Consortium for Academics and Sport, which Lapchick still directs. Through its efforts involving 221 colleges and universities, 23,700 athletes have finished their degrees, and those athletes have worked with more than 12 million kids.
In 1993, Lapchick added to his compassionate legacy by forming Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), which educates college and high school students about men’s violence against women.
Lapchick hopes that the effect of his busy career has been to create “a consciousness in the world of sport” and also to show people of color that “there are many white people out there who want to bring about social change and end racism in the country. I am just one example of that.”