The grand stage in professional sports is the Super Bowl. Amid all the usual accompanying Super Bowl hoopla, for the first time in its 41-year history African Amer-ican coaches will lead their teams onto the field of America’s premier sports event. Super Bowl XLI opens Black History month with a bang.
When Tony Dungy runs onto the Miami field with the American Football Conference champion Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith leads the National Football champion Chicago Bears through the tunnel, both men bring forth achievement marked by political and personal struggles. It marks a milestone toward “The Dream” — that persons be judged by the “content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
It took the threat of a lawsuit in 2002 to wedge the doors to the NFL coaches’ offices open. The late Johnnie Cochran, the renowned trial attorney, and Cyrus Mehri, a labor lawyer, presented “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performances, Inferior Opportunities,” a study by Dr. Janice Madden of the University of Pennsylvania. Madden found that over a 15-year period, while 30 percent of NFL players were white, they comprised 72 percent of the assistant coaches and 94 percent of the head coaches.
While teams led by white coaches made the playoffs 39 percent of the time, African American coaches (only five at the time), took their teams into the post-season 67 percent of the time. In 2000, nine teams hired new head coaches, all white with losing records, and little or no experience.
The owners decided to negotiate. In what is now known as the Rooney rule (Dan Rooney is the owner of the Steelers) teams must interview non-white candidates for their coaching positions. In 2003, the league fined Matt Millen, president of the Detroit Lions, $200,000 for violating the rule.
This season the NFL reached an all time high of seven Black head coaches out of 32 teams.
Whoever holds up the Super Bowl trophy, there are no losers when you know that barriers can be broken and struggles will continue.