Thursday, February 01, 2007

Black History Month and the Super Bowl

During the course of the 2006 NFL campaign five AFC teams were piloted by black head coaches - Cincinnati (Marvin Lewis), Cleveland (Romeo Crennel), Indianapolis (Tony Dungy), Kansas City (Herm Edwards), and Oakland (Art Shell). In the NFC, there were two - Arizona (Denny Green), and Chicago (Lovie Smith). Shell and Green have since been fired and Mike Tomlin hired in Pittsburgh to replace Bill Cowher.

This is the first post-season in NFL history that will feature a black head coach, and as the dominoes fell this post season, it will feature one on each sideline. What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Absolutely nothing. Is it progress? Yes.

However, as long as we pay attention to black versus white in the coaching carousel - we in the press, in the executive suite, and as fans - do an injustice to those coaching on the sideline.

Is it historically important? Probably not. From a color barrier standpoint, there are a number of others that came before in the athletic arena that led the way. It's unlikely that during the two week press whirlwind that is the time between the division championships and the end of the Super Bowl that we'll hear a reporter repeat a paraphrase of the ignorance that Redskins quarterback Doug Williams was subject to over 20 years ago with the question of, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"

Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy are unlikely to receive the hate mail and threats received by Hank Aaron almost 35 years ago when he was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

The NFL will not have to switch hotels in Miami, or pull the game from the city like the American Football League pulled its 1965 All-Star Game from New Orleans and moved it to Houston due to the way that 23 black players were being treated in the city.

The coaches will not be forced to seek out separate accommodations for themselves or their black players from those of their white teammates like the coach for Jackie Robinson did.

Players today seldom, if ever, have political agendas such as Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, and Olympians Tommie Smith, and John Carlos.

Do problems still exist with the system? Sure. This season past season saw seven teams with black coaches, and if the Cowboys hire a white coach then next season will have only six black men in charge of teams in a league where more than half the players are black. Are there more than six qualified candidates? We won't know until the candidates get the opportunity.

However, Green gave us three losing seasons in Arizona, and Shell presided over the NFL equivalent of A Comedy of Errors, then again, Mike Singletary's name has been looming large as a soon to be hot commodity.

While the interviewing rule changes proposed by the Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has helped, the genesis of these changes and the really important changes go back years.

It goes back to coaches like Hank Stram, and Joe Gibbs who gave blacks chances at positions that most believed they were incapable of playing. It goes back to owners in the old AFL, like Al Davis, who listened to the complaints of the players who were confronted by racism. It goes back to Brown, Ali, Smith, Robinson, and Carlos, who weathered the early social and legal violence that went with being popular symbols in a fight for racial equality during a time when teams couldn't even stay in the same hotel and fans often were not allowed to utilize the same facilities at a stadium just because of the color of their skin.

It goes back earlier to Jesse Owens putting the punctuation mark on the joke of the Aryan Master Race and to a son of a slave that laid the ground work for the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. - Paul Robeson .

According to the online archive at Rutgers, "Robeson was awarded a four year academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, the third black student in the history of the institution. Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a twelve letter athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was named to the All American Football team on two occasions. In addition to his athletic talents, Robeson was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society, and graduated valedictorian of his class in 1919."

Robeson was an outspoken proponent of equal rights in the 1940's, but faced censorship from the House Committee on Un-American activities. For more information on Robeson and his importance to sparking the Civil Rights Movement, click here.

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