I'm an African American child of Gary, Ind. who spent years believing Jon Gruden rode the organization built by Tony Dungy into his NFL championship in 2002. So seeing Dungy's quiet strength lead the Indianapolis Colts to a hard-won Super Bowl victory Sunday was a sweet, welcome Black History Month gift.
But another thought rose while Dungy was making a characteristically modest acceptance speech which acknowledged all the great, unsung black coaches who made his historic win possible.
Why did this take so long?
I know, Minnesota Vikings coach Denny Green came close in 1998, and Dungy himself nearly made it a year later leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (despite Gruden's work boosting the Bucs' offense, even some Buccaneers players said it was Dungy's defense that made the Super Bowl XXXVII win possible).
But it's taken 41 years for a black coach to win the Big Game, and I'm afraid that lag is a comment on more than the Buccaneers' inability to match Dungy's capacity for calm, relentless achievement.
Once upon a time, we looked to sports pioneers for a vision of the future in race relations and integration: Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron and many others. In a steady, proud succession, these athletes invalidated the nation's notions of segregation and racial superiority -- forcing white America to admit that, at least on the playing field, all men should compete as equals.
But these days, our sports pioneers seem a shade behind the times.
People of color fill more seats of power than ever in government and business: U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez serves Republican Party chairman; Barack Obama advances a historic mainstream presidential campaign alongside the first mainstream Hispanic candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Condoleeza Rice sits fourth in line of succession to the presidency as Secretary of State.
According to Black Enterprise magazine, three black-owned corporations topped revenues of $1-billion, compared to 1973, when the top 100 black-owned firms didn't make half that much. Black people now serve as top executives at major corporations such as Young and Rubicam Brands, Time Warner and Symantic Corporation.
So how did professional sports go from leading our dreams of racial equality to bringing up the rear?
Maybe it's our fault.
In sports as well as elsewhere, we now seem focused a different kind of hero when it comes to race relations and race issues. After 40 years of fighting and struggle, we seem to want heroes who will tell us everything is okay, or will be with harmonious effort; we HAVE overcome, their success tells us, and we don't need to fight so much anymore.
I'm not much of a sports fan, but this is the message I feel from more recent sports stars: the Michael Jordans, the Charles Barkleys, the Tiger Woods. Woods even tried to describe himself as separate from the African American dynamic - on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, he called himself Cablinasian to describe a mixture of black, Caucasian, Native American and Asian heritages - before anger from black people prompted him to downplay such talk.
Think about it. Muhammad Ali lost his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam; track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos were banned from the Olympic village after raising their fists in a black power salute during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race in 1968.
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it took a rapper to say what was on most black folks' minds. And the struggle to diversify the NFL's head coaching ranks was sparked by a threatened lawsuit from legendary attorney Johnnie Cochrane in 2002 - along with a study he helped develop showing that the league then had only hired six black head coaches since 1920.
Now, nearly 20 years after the Oakland Raiders' Art Shell became the first black head coach in the NFL, we finally have a black coach grasping the Vince Lombardi trophy in triumph -- winning the top honor in a league where more than 70 percent of the players are black men. And some experts say that is a potent sign that sports no longer provides progressive example of race achievement in America, but mirrors our ambivalence.
"Only four companies in the Fortune 500 have an African American CEO, only the second governor who is African American was elected this year and we have Barack Obama as only the third African American elected Senator," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "I think the country is moving too slow -- just like sports."
As a friend of mine suggested recently, sports has always masked underlying tensions about race and class in the zeal to cheer a superior team or star athlete.
And as speculation arises over how long it will take for a black-owned team to win a Super Bowl, history professor and sports fan Greg Padgett suggested Dungy's achievement may more closely parallel classic black sports moments than we all realize.
"Think about Joe Louis, the embodiment of American democracy when he fought (German heavyweight) Max Schmeling, living in a segregated society where he couldn't buy a house in certain neighborhoods," said Padgett, an associate professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "What these careers often do is expose (society's) failings through their success. What they're exposing, is how far, in many ways, we still have to go."
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