CLUTCHING a microphone in one hand, his huge frame clad in a black sweat suit, Lin Dawson vaults from the stage of Boston's Hyde Park High School to get closer to his audience.
It is the morning after Super Bowl XXVII, and Dawson, whose 10-year career as a tight end with the New England Patriots included the 1986 Super Bowl, undoubtedly could offer many perspectives on the recent game.
But he isn't here to talk about football. Sizing up the students in the hall, most of whom are black, he bellows into the microphone:
"Young people, do you know that statistically one out of every 27 of us will be murdered? We're more polarized now than we've ever been. We've come to believe that if I get in your face, you've got to get in mine. We're caught in a web and we don't know how to get out. And what it boils down to is this: I hurt, so I want to hurt others."
He pauses. "We've bought the first lie: that violence is power."
Dawson, who is black and overcame an underprivileged childhood in North Carolina, tours the country to preach the importance of education and racial sensitivity. He shares the program with two other retired athletes, 6-ft. 10-in. former Harvard basketball center Bob McCabe and Holly Metcalf, a 1984 US Olympic gold medalist in rowing. McCabe and Metcalf are white.
Their appearances are sponsored by a unique institute, based here at Northeastern University. The Center for the Study of Sport in Society (CSSS) is steadily gaining in stature as the United States once again confronts racism in such venues as a southern California courtroom and the front office of baseball's Cincinnati Reds. Boston itself has struggled for decades with the perception that it is one of the most racist cities in the nation.
The CSSS staff of 17 - plus those at new regional offices in Chicago, Orlando, Fla., and Reno, Nev. - pays little attention to such burning issues as whether major-college football should have a playoff system, or how baseball teams in small markets can survive without a salary cap. It has a different agenda: drawing on the enormous resources of the sports world to try to make society a better place.
"We have become a major booster of sport," says director Richard Lapchick, "because I think we all see here that sport is one of the positive things in society that we can build on. People, especially kids, listen to athletes." Northeastern neutral
The center is based at Northeastern, Mr. Lapchick says, precisely because of that school's relatively low profile in college athletics. This avoids the perception that it might have something to gain from the presence of such a program on campus. Northeastern funds less than half of its $1.1 million annual sports budget. The rest comes from donors as varied as ESPN, the National Hockey League, and Reebok, the athletic-shoe company.
Joseph Crowley, president of both the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the University of Nevada at Reno, is one of the center's leading fans.
"The NCAA leadership has a very high regard for Rich Lapchick and the work of the center," Crowley says. "It fits nicely with our reform agenda, especially in the area of diversity education projects" - such as working to sensitize member schools to the underrepresentation of minorities in athletic administration and head coaching jobs.
Northeastern president John A. Curry says he is a "real believer" in the center and calls Lapchick "an excellent goodwill ambassador." Their work, he says, hold the school's feet to the fire.
"We have to ensure that if Rich operates from Northeastern University, our own programs are all above board," Dr. Curry says, citing compliance with federal law mandating equal resources for women's athletic programs, as well as his efforts to increase the number of black faculty.
But not everyone feels so warmly. Some consider the center meddlesome.
"Not only do we get `Who cares?' from people," Lapchick says, "but also `Stop interfering with my enjoyment of sports.' Fortunately, they're a small percentage."
Project Teamwork, under which Dawson, McCabe, and Metcalf visit middle and high schools, is one of the center's two primary programs. Former "teammates" include ex-baseball pitcher Luis Tiant; onetime Chicago Bulls standout Norm Van Lier; recent pro football players Mosi Tatupu, Keith Lee, and Robert Weathers; and Kelly Landry, a leading competitor in the women's discus event.
At last count, Project Teamwork had reached more than 50,000 students in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Georgia, Texas, and Illinois.
What sets Project Teamwork apart from other visitation programs on racism is that each participating school is encouraged to form an official "human rights squad." Students who volunteer to join receive six hours of training in conflict resolution and ethnic and gender sensitivity, which they are expected to use with schoolmates.
Lapchick credits the human rights squads with helping to keep Boston calm amid the violent reaction in Los Angeles and other cities last spring to the acquittal of four policemen accused of beating Rodney King. Former players pitch in
Wrote one appreciative Boston-area school official, following a presentation by Dawson, McCabe, and Metcalf last December: "I personally have never seen our students so attentive and engaged. We would like to invite Project Teamwork back at least two times before year's end."
The other key component of the center's work is the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, a network of more than 100 colleges and universities in the US and Canada. Member schools - among them such giants as Penn State, Texas, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Auburn - readmit former players who used up their athletic eligibility and left school without graduating.
The readmitted athletes pay no tuition but must agree to visit schools and hospitals, hold clinics, tutor young people in reading, or perform other types of community service. The athletes must have been out of school no longer than 10 years and have played in revenue-producing sports.
More than 3,200 men and women have taken advantage of the program, Lapchick says, including his favorite example: Eddie Lee Ivery was a former star running back with the Green Bay Packers.
Ivery's pro football career ended after nine seasons. He had left Georgia Tech in 1979 without graduating. But he went back to school, earned his degree last year, and now teaches in a Georgia elementary school.
"I was down there last fall and happened to be at a football game," Lapchick recalls. "He came up to me at halftime - I didn't know who he was - and said `You have no idea the impact your program has had on my life."
The center also has its sights trained on the profits being raked in by sports franchises.
"What we have to do is use some of the money from sport to achieve tremendous social gain," Lapchick says.
"For example, we ought to say to the [Boston] Celtics: `We spent $43,000 prepping Reggie Lewis for you. How about giving us back $40,000 so a minority non-athlete can have the benefit of a college education?' "
Lewis, who played his collegiate basketball at Northeastern, now is the Celtics' captain and leading scorer.