You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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Don't Be Afraid of What You Don't Know

Ignorance is never a defense, but too often we all make judgments based on a belief that we know the truth when it's very clear from the outside that we are afraid of the answer.

My mother was raised in Stuttgart, Germany. My father was a black military man stationed there for a time. They met and fell in love and got married. I don't know if they ever considered the ramifications of a biracial marriage; they figured they were in love, and that was all that mattered. Biracial marriages are very common in the military-when someone is stationed overseas somewhere at a certain age, it's often simply who they meet, who they socialize with, and who they get to know.

My parents weren't treated that great in Germany, and after enduring a two-week-long ride on a Navy tanker to get to the United States, they found out that the Americans weren't real happy with them, either.

They settled in Monmouth, New Jersey, where I was born, and then were moved to Fort ORD Army base in northern California when I was about five. Eventually they bought a small house in Seaside, California, a middle-class city of about 30,000.

My parents chose Seaside because it was closest to the base and more affordable than Monterey's Carmel or Pebble Beach. Their house (a small three-bedroom with a nice yard) cost about $15,000 back then. But it was their first house, and my mom still lives there today. She's comfortable there and has found no reason to leave. We're probably the only original family that still lives on the block. It's nice for her because all my friends know where to go to look in on her and make sure she's okay.

But back in the day when we first moved in, there wasn't a lot of love thrown their way because of their racial makeup. It had to be tough on my mother, who had left her family to come to America to start another life with a man she loved dearly and then found herself in an environment that didn't understand anything about her or my dad. I know it had to hurt when the neighbors gave them the cold shoulder when we first moved in, but she never showed the strain. Mom simply went about her business of making a good home for her husband and their two children and didn't pay attention to the fuss. She knew who she was and what our family was about, and anybody who didn't, well that was their problem.

My parents' approach to the neighborhood ignorance was a great model for me to follow when I finished middle school. The area was in a state of flux because the courts had just ordered desegregation. Monterey High School was in need of some kids of color to come over and integrate the school, and I was one of the many who were chosen to be bused to fill out school board's quotas. Here I was living a couple of miles away from Seaside High, but instead of walking to school, I was spending 20 minutes riding on a bus-each way-to go to Monterey High. The worst part wasn't riding the bus in the morning, it was coming back at night because the Seaside kids were dropped off last, meaning that we were on that bus forever and many nights I didn't get home until 6:30 or so.

Those first few days I felt really anxious about what was going to happen. But my mom, who knew firsthand what I might face, told me to stay strong and stand my ground. She reminded me that with change comes anxiety, but in time everything would be fine.

That gave me great confidence. I knew I was going to be a star athlete, and I embraced that attitude from that first ride on the bus that first day. Kids would ask me how I was going to get home and I told them I had a limo-a 52-passenger limo-and they laughed when they saw me get on that big yellow school bus and wave good-bye. I handled a lot of things with humor and the grace my parents instilled in me. It also helped that I was performing pretty well on the football field-never underestimate the power of being a star athlete.

So many of us like to think we know everything. And then it becomes safe to do only what you know. If you haven't been around black people or Chinese people or Muslims, you really don't know how to act. So you fall back on what seems safe: 'They're different; therefore they must be bad.' So many people don't ever learn about what they don't know because they're afraid of it, so they allow their lack of knowledge to become so rigid and set that they can't or won't learn anything new.

A perfect example came following the worst day in our nation's history, September 11, 2001-the terrorist attacks on the city of New York and, by association, the American people. We found out that the terrorists were Muslim, from a foreign country, and that they caused the deaths of thousands of people. And because most of us have never been around Muslims, we immediately rushed to judgment against anyone who even looked like a Muslim (not that we really knew what that was, either). I heard so many stories of innocent people being persecuted because of the fear that had gripped the country. Black people know the stories of racial profiling only too well, and now we're adding Muslims or Arabs or anyone who looks Middle Eastern to that world. Nobody knew any better. Many people were afraid even to get on the same elevator with a guy in a turban or a woman in a long robe. It took education to get people to stop being afraid of what they didn't know. That's not to say that the problem has been completely solved. But I do believe that the country has done a pretty good job of realizing that many Muslims are Americans, too, and felt the pain of the terrorist attacks just as greatly, if not even more so because of their religion, as everyone else did.

The same thing happened when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS. The country panicked. If someone like Magic Johnson can get this deadly disease, what does that mean for the rest of us? The ignorance was amazing. Karl Malone, who played for the Utah Jazz then, came out and said he didn't want to play against Magic, who made a comeback a few years after the announcement, and he wasn't afraid to step up and say so. He was afraid he'd brush up against Magic and get HIV. He didn't know any differently, and he voiced what a lot of other NBA players were feeling, but weren't bold enough to say out loud. Eventually, though, through Magic's foundation and an increased awareness of how the disease is transmitted, people learned. They found out that it isn't transmitted by brushing up against someone, or sharing a table, or sitting next to someone on a crowded bus. Gradually, the American public began to learn, and today the awareness of HIV and AIDS has never been higher. A lot of people credit Magic for educating the public not only about the disease, but about how to prevent it in their own lives.

Sports, in many ways, are a great teacher. The NFL wouldn't exist without a diversity of backgrounds. Neither would the NBA or Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League. In each, we have a mixture of cultures, and when you put different cultures together, we have learned, you become smarter as an organization. Diversity training in large companies isn't to fill quotas anymore. Smart managers know that there is strength in pulling together different people from different backgrounds and allowing them to work out solutions to problems, create new ideas, formulate new and different ways of looking at situations.

Our team is like that. We have guys from all walks of life with different stories and theories and ideas, and they're all focused on one goal-winning. They've learned about one another, and they've learned from one another. They know each other now and realize there was never anything to fear.

Knowledge is empowering.

You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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