In August, Ken Williams took part in an ESPN-sponsored town-hall meeting on gun violence, which as any Chicagoan knows is one of the nation’s deadliest, most intractable problems.
In fact, ESPN’s choice of Chicago as site of the event owes to the grim truth that some of the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods resemble war zones. That point was driven home with sickening clarity one day after the taping when Nykea Aldridge, first cousin to panel participant Dwyane Wade, was shot dead as she pushed a stroller bearing her infant near their South Side home.
ESPN being ESPN, the program was awash in star power, and it was too much of a good thing. With so many voices to accommodate, the taping left little room for meaningful discussion among the panelists. The dialogue consisted mostly of anecdotal experiences with street violence and/or their views on combatting it.
Williams, in a post-session chat with reporters, was frustrated that the well-meaning endeavor didn’t dig deeper. The White Sox’ executive vice president has spent his entire adult life in baseball, but he is a citizen of the world, and, as such, he is acutely aware that the epidemic of gun violence is maiming, demonizing and dehumanizing a generation of young African-American males.
“It’s not borderline desperate, it’s beyond desperate,” Williams corrected when a reporter suggested that the situation in some city neighborhoods was “borderline desperate.”
He recited a long list of probable causes — lack of jobs, lack of hope, teenage pregnancy, absent fathers, disproportionate incarceration rates, failing schools, readily available guns and drugs — all of them valid. And he emphasized that anyone suggesting there’s an easy solution — Donald Trump, say — is woefully misguided.
‘‘It’s not a police problem; it’s not a government problem; it’s not a schools problem,” Williams said. “It’s a societal problem. And it’s going to take a commitment from the best minds we have, from government, from business, from sports, from the arts, from all walks of life, to come together and work toward a solution.”
Maybe Williams is the man to lead such an effort.
He is a well-respected figure in the African-American community, a high-ranking sports executive with a proven track record for leadership, and he has that rarest of Chicago achievements on his résumé: a world championship. He is smart, thoughtful and well-spoken, a man of strong convictions. People listen when Williams speaks, regardless of whether they agree with him. He is passionate about finding a solution to this vexing problem.
Moreover, social activism runs in Williams’ family. His godfather is John Carlos, the 200-meter bronze medalist in the 1968 Olympics who was sent home from Mexico City after he and gold medalist teammate Tommie Smith delivered a Black Power salute from the medal stand.
Carlos, Smith and Williams’ father, Jerry, were track teammates at San Jose State. Bay Area civil-rights activists were a frequent presence around the Williams household as young Kenny was growing up. After becoming a San Jose firefighter, Jerry Williams sued the city fire department on grounds that discriminatory practices were hindering his career progression.
“He had to sue for the right to save people’s lives,” Williams once told me.
Assembling and running an anti-violence task force would be a full-time job and would take Williams away from his current job as head of all things baseball with the Sox. That’s a good thing. The organization desperately needs a sharp change in direction, with events of the past week erasing all doubt.
On the day the Cubs announced a five-year contract extension for front-office savant Theo Epstein, the Sox dropped hints that it’s up to Robin Ventura whether he returns as manager after four desultory losing seasons. It smacked of a face-saving gesture to spare good-guy Robin the indignity of being fired. But Rick Renteria as the replacement? A failed former Cub appeasing a fan base grown thoroughly disillusioned? Let the chipping away begin.
While the Cubs are the hottest item in baseball, the White Sox muddle along at the intersection of Maybe and I Don’t Know, inviting apathy. Jason Benetti is a breath of fresh air in the TV booth, but it was pitiful hearing him talk up a recent homestand as the Sox’ “opportunity to play spoiler in the division.” It has come to that.
Maybe Rick Hahn is another Epstein. We’ll never know as long as Williams looks over his shoulder. A dramatic overhaul is needed. Williams can expedite it by moving on to a higher calling.