CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The sweat was still dripping from the national championship victory when Arkansas decided it was time to use the r-word.

“We didn’t get any respect all year,” Corliss Williamson said, holding the trophy.

“Nobody respected us,” echoed Scotty Thurman.

“I hope this gets us the respect we deserve,” said Nolan Richardson, before launching into yet another lecture about why he, more than any other college coach, deserves it.

Time out for a reality check. Who invented this new sports slogan? You can’t find a winner anymore — let alone a loser — who doesn’t blurt out during the celebration, “Everyone was against us!” or “Nobody gave us credit.”

In the Final Four this past weekend, it could have been the banner at the team hotels.

“THE HYATT WELCOMES, THE TEAM NOBODY RESPECTS.”

Arizona claimed it had been dissed for years, and coach Lute Olson made it his theme. Florida built its underdog image around being “ignored.”

Duke — with two national championships in the last four years — noted that there weren’t as many articles about the Blue Devils as usual, and maybe people were taking them for granted. No respect, they suggested.

Richardson was on the biggest soapbox of all, using “lack of respect” like a political platform — despite his team’s being voted No. 1 much of the season, and Richardson’s being voted national coach of the year.

Coach of the year? No respect?

After a while, this complaining, like the clanging of a broken school bell, fades into an annoying background. After all, weren’t these teams playing before worldwide TV audiences? Didn’t they have their pictures in newspapers around the nation? Weren’t they being cheered by thousands of strangers, besieged for autographs, slapped on the back wherever they went?

If that’s disrespect, I know a few people who want some sent their way.

Nolan plays the race card

Now, it’s insulting enough when a professional athlete complains about lack of recognition. He’s making millions of dollars for a talent that, despite entertainment value, does nothing to better society. And he still beefs?

Well, he’s beyond saving. But when college athletes, some 18 and 19 years old, are allowed to make “no respect” a team chant, then the people guiding them must be taken to task. What are we teaching our young people if everything is about being overlooked? What is the meaning of respect, anyhow? That everyone fawns over you? That not a single critical remark is made? That you deserve universal adulation, from the man on the street to Dick Vitale? Sorry. That’s not real life.

Yet the whining goes on. And, as we saw last weekend, it gets even more sensitive when race is introduced — and Richardson made race a constant focal point.

Now, let’s be clear: Nolan Richardson is a remarkable man, with remarkable achievements. He worked his way up from a time and place of discrimination to become a leader in his field — a smart, inspirational coach, as good as any
— and he has built a wonderful program that everyone knows about.

But Arkansas is no overlooked, backwater school. It’s a major college sports program. The Razorbacks were favored to win throughout the tournament, and they had the biggest international spotlight of any team, thanks partly to superfan President Bill Clinton, who attended their last three games.

You wouldn’t know it by Richardson. He took every opportunity to rail against perceived oversights, to claim that he, as a black coach, was “one step from the outhouse.” He ripped TV announcers who give nicknames to Bobby Knight but not him. He acted as if no one knew who he was, or ever gave him a modicum of respect — all because he was black.

Though I know many people suffer this description, Nolan Richardson is not one of them. He hasn’t been for a while.

Command respect; don’t demand it

The danger in this is that, if you scream when screaming isn’t required, people may not listen when screaming really is. College basketball is no nirvana, racially speaking, but it is no longer on the critical list. Coaches such as Richardson, John Thompson, John Chaney, Stu Jackson, Todd Bozeman and Randy Ayers are recognized as leaders in their field. The game itself, dominated by black athletes, is at an all-time high in popularity. With his NCAA championship — his first — Richardson has earned the right to have his accomplishments speak for themselves: He should exercise it.

Meanwhile, the issue of clamoring for respect has become a national epidemic. From the Buffalo Bills to the Atlanta Braves to the U.S. Olympic bobsled team. Somewhere, somehow, athletes have made this us-against-the-world thing part of their training. It’s ugly. And, quite frankly, it is not a lesson we should be teaching college students.

Someone once said you command respect, you don’t demand it. That’s correct. If athletes really want to talk “no respect,” they should talk to a schoolteacher who’s earning $11,000 a year, or an immigrant who is turned away from a job because of his accent.

But playing a sport and thinking someone’s not cheering loudly enough? That’s not lack of respect. That’s called being spoiled rotten. And the world is too serious a place to be bothered by that.

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