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Milestone in Miami

Don't discount impact of African-American coaches

Posted: Wednesday January 31, 2007 1:50PM; Updated: Wednesday January 31, 2007 1:50PM
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Either Tony Dungy, pictured, or Lovie Smith will make history on Sunday by becoming the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl.
Either Tony Dungy, pictured, or Lovie Smith will make history on Sunday by becoming the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl.
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Phil Taylor will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
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Maybe you're one of those people who are already sick and tired of hearing that Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are the first two African-Americans to coach in the Super Bowl. You think it's just a non-issue created by a media desperate for pre-Super Bowl story lines. You don't care about race; in fact, if not for the constant stories reminding you of it, you might not even have thought about the fact that Dungy and Smith are black men.

If that's how you feel, you're not alone. For every story on the racial significance of this Super Bowl, there has been another one suggesting that we're making too much of it. But in this case, race matters. It is not the only story of this Super Bowl, but it is one of the most important. This is a milestone for the NFL, a league with a horrible history of discriminatory hiring that it has only recently begun to rectify. It is a milestone for America, a country that still has a few issues left when it comes to placing minority members in positions of power.

On Sunday night, Dungy or Smith will hold the Super Bowl trophy over his head in triumph, an image that will be replayed again and again as part of NFL history. Every time it is shown, it's unspoken message will be repeated -- that yes, a black coach can achieve the ultimate, that he can lead a team to the top of the NFL. Until now, there has been no proof of that. Most of us surely knew it, but we couldn't point to an example.

And let's not be na´ve, there are still some people -- not as many as there were 10, 20, 30 years ago, thankfully, but some -- who doubted that fact, who couldn't quite envision a black coach being that kind of leader. To those folks, the ones who might have thought people like Smith or Dungy got hired out of political correctness and not because of their ability, Sunday night will be the ultimate proof that they were wrong.

Smith has said that he would not have been hired by the Bears if not for the Rooney Rule, which requires teams with head coaching vacancies to interview at least one minority member for the position. Let's not forget that that's how discriminatory the league had been for decades -- so much so that owners had to be forced, under threat of fines, to even interview minority candidates.

Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, one of the greatest players in Bears' history, told the Bloomberg News Service this week that in 1983, 11 years after his playing career ended, he wrote to every one of the 28 teams in the NFL at the time inquiring about a coaching job. According to Sayers, 27 of the teams didn't bother to reply. The 28th, the Raiders, wrote him a rejection letter.

Might Sayers have led the Bears to a Super Bowl long before Lovie Smith if given a chance? How about the dozens of other African-American men who never got the chance to do what Smith and Dungy have done? Those who never advanced past assistant coaching positions, who had the misfortune of living in a time when NFL owners just couldn't envision someone with their skin color as a leader of men?

Sunday night is for them, too. Dungy and Smith have seemed a bit uncomfortable when asked about the racial significance of the game, and that's a shame. It would be much more satisfying to hear them dedicate their Super Bowl appearances to all those coaches who never were given the opportunity to do what they've done. It's true that they are football coaches first, but they are black football coaches, and in the NFL, that is still a small category.

Maybe it feels tiresome to hear repeatedly about Smith and Dungy breaking through a racial barrier, but it's also right and necessary. It's a time to reflect on how unfair the NFL once was and a time to celebrate how far it has come. Let the stories continue, and let the broadcasters on Sunday night repeat the news as often as they like. A blow will be struck for fairness, for equality on Super Bowl Sunday. How could anyone get tired of hearing about that?

Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button topic every Monday on SI.com.