NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown talked about black athletes using economic clout.
San Diego Padres' owner John Moores wondered why a Hispanic coach on his team can't get a nibble at a major league manager's job.Dennis Green asked why he is among so few black pro football coaches.
It was the kind of discussion President Clinton had hoped for when he teamed with an all-star panel of sports figures in a bid to sharpen the national dialogue on race.
At the second of three planned town hall meetings on the subject, Clinton urged Americans to look to sports as an example of how individuals of different races can join in a common effort.
"I think it's obvious that athletics is leading America toward a more harmonious united society, but we still have more work to do," Clinton said, wrapping up Tuesday's session at Houston's Wortham Theater 15 minutes past the scheduled 90 minutes. It was televised on the sports cable network ESPN.
The discussion among the 11 panel members was mostly polite.
But it turned pointed when Brown, a star running back with the Cleveland Browns, suggested that black college stars turn more often to black agents when launching their pro careers.
"We sit up and talk about one more black coach. One more black coach is a symbolic situation," said Brown, who is black. "Those black dollars are investment."
That angered Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. When asked for his reaction, Thompson snapped: "I can't use profanity on the show."
Thompson said many of his former players have hired Washington sports agent David Falk, who is white.
"Unfortunately, I find it very difficult to fire David because he is white," Thompson said.
Thompson added that he was criticized for allowing a white to broadcast his team's games when no one else would - and for having primarily black players. He said he is called both an "Uncle Tom" - an insulting reference to someone subservient to white interests - as well as a racist.
Clinton said he appreciated the honesty of the dispute, saying he could agree with Brown but also respect Thompson's position.
"You're not going to abandon your friends," he said of Thompson. "The point Jim is making is a different one. What he's pointing out is there is still a huge opportunity gap in our society."
An avid fan of college basketball and major professional sports, Clinton is well versed in issues like white dominance in coaching and sports team ownership. He said that if pro sports wants more minority coaches but cannot find them, "then there's something wrong with recruitment."
Yet the president said he was optimistic that talking about race in the context of sports can help the nation deal with broader racial issues.
"America, rightly or wrongly, is a sports-crazy country," he said. "And we often see games as a metaphor or symbol of what we are as a people."