The flop-sweat had not even dried on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning’s star-crossed brow before what will become the most endlessly thumped story of Super Bowl XLI hit the wires: For the first time in history, the head coaches of both teams are black.
No question this is a significant milestone. No question Colts helmsman Tony Dungy and Bears coach Lovie Smith deserve praise for shattering one of sports’ most formidable glass ceilings. No question this moment is particularly sweet for Smith, who remains the NFL’s lowest-paid head coach.
But the tenor and tone of the early coverage has provided fuzzy cover for NFL hiring practices that continue to look like they’re overseen by Strom Thurmond.
AP sports columnist Nancy Armour praised Dungy and Smith for keeping their noses down and working hard instead of “whining about life being unfair.”
Sports Illustrated‘s Jeffri Chadiha threw more laurels at Dungy, saying that what is “impressive about him is the way he’s opened doors for other minority coaches in the league over the last 11 years.”
Even Barack Obama weighed in, using the coaches’ accomplishment to burnish his own image as America’s Most Unthreatening Model Minority: “You know, what makes it even better is that they are both men of humility, they are both men of God…it is a wonderful story, not just for African-Americans but for all Americans to see men like that who are good fathers, who are good leaders, who do things the right way, succeed.”
What this kind of cotton candy ignores is that the NFL still has a long way to go, and the very real achievements of Dungy and Smith should not be used to obscure this.
The fact that this is a story at all says something about the restricted ranks of the NFL coaching fraternity. If this year’s NBA finals result in the Dallas Mavericks (coached by Avery Johnson) facing the Washington Wizards (coached by Eddie Jordan), no one will even notice. It wouldn’t even rank as a footnote in Ebony Magazine. This is because the NBA has a very positive record of hiring black coaches.
With almost 70 percent of the NFL populated by African-American players, only 18 percent of the coaches meet that description. This year there were seven. Next year, there will be six–although one vacancy still needs to be filled. In the NFL looking glass, this passes for progress.
In 2002 the late Johnnie Cochran and fellow attorney Cyrus Mehri threatened a lawsuit against the league at a time when the number of black head coaches stood at two. To quiet Cochran and company, the NFL put in place rules that require teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every vacancy. (This became known as the Rooney rule, after Steelers CEO Dan Rooney.) But this year, as the yearly round of coaches hit the unemployment line, the Rooney rule seemed to be ignored.
In Miami, for example, Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga’s final candidates were white–with the exception of one Hispanic and one black man, with the final hire going to Cam Cameron, whose only head-coaching experience was an 18-37 record at Indiana University. (And, yes, Indiana does in fact have a football team.)
The Atlanta Falcons hired Louisville University coach Bobby Petrino without interviewing another candidate.
In Arizona, the Rooney rule was once again disregarded, and the job went to Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt. Another candidate Arizona ignored was an Asian-American named Norm Chow.
Chow is the genius offensive coordinator who as a college assistant mentored Heisman Trophy winners Ty Detmer (at BYU), Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush (at USC). Now he is the offensive coordinator for the upstart Tennessee Titans. The Cardinals apparently didn’t even consider him (at least not publicly), even though the quarterback for the Cardinals is none other than Matt Leinart.
Over the next two weeks, expect the NFL and its stenographers in the press to wrench their arms out of their sockets, patting themselves on the back for Smith’s and Dungy’s success. Don’t expect anyone to note that the two coaches’ achievements have come in spite of, not because of, the NFL.
Lovie Smith said he wishes that “this didn’t have to be a big story.” We still have a long way to go before that is the case.