BROWN if he needed some time to appreciate the significance of Super Bowl XLI's
coaching matchup. The Eagles' fifth-year cornerback was just a few days removed
from his own team's 27--24 NFC divisional-round loss to the Saints when he
tuned in to the NFL Network and heard broadcasters discussing the possibility
of two African-American head coaches-- Indianapolis's Tony Dungy and Chicago's
Lovie Smith--facing each other in the NFL's biggest game. Only then did the
magnitude of the moment sink in. "I started rooting for the Bears and the
Colts right then," Brown says. "At first I didn't even realize that we
could have two black head coaches in the Super Bowl. But when I did, I knew
this would be a huge deal."
African-American NFL player might need reminding of what would become one of
the major story lines of this year's Super Bowl illustrates the racial progress
that has been made in pro football recently. On the field, Dungy (above, left)
versus Smith is a meeting of friends who share a defensive philosophy, of a
mentor and his former assistant, of coaching veterans who rose through the
ranks and now stand at the pinnacle of their profession. But it's the larger
social context that has again drawn attention to racial issues in a league in
which two thirds of the players are black.
It was only 18
years ago that the Raiders made Art Shell the first African-American head coach
of the modern era. That didn't exactly kick the doors open. As late as 2002
there were only two black head coaches in the league--Dungy with the Colts and
Herm Edwards with the Jets--and lawyer Johnnie Cochran was threatening the NFL
with an antidiscrimination lawsuit in hopes of compelling more owners to
consider minority coaching candidates. The NFL's response was the Rooney Rule,
formulated by the league's diversity committee (chaired by Steelers owner Dan
Rooney) and adopted in December '02. It mandates that any team with a
head-coach opening must interview at least one minority for the job unless it
is promoting one of its own assistants. Adoption of the rule proved to be a
watershed. By the beginning of the '06 season the NFL had seven
African-American coaches. (And Rooney put his money where his mouth was last
month by naming Mike Tomlin, a 34-year-old Vikings assistant, as Bill Cowher's
Dungy has been at
the forefront of progress. A head coach since 1996, when he was hired by the
Buccaneers, he's emerged as the dean of black coaches, creating opportunities
for others. As in Tampa, where he gave Smith and Tomlin their first pro
coaching jobs and had Edwards on his staff, he has filled his Indianapolis
staff with African-Americans--eight of his 16 assistants are black, including
defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and Jim Caldwell, the assistant head
coach/quarterbacks coach, who recently interviewed for the Cardinals' head job.
Smith has done the same in Chicago, where he has six black assistants plus
defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who's Hispanic, and defensive assistant Lloyd
Lee, a Korean-American. Rivera interviewed for four jobs last month and was
mentioned as a possible successor to Bill Parcells in Dallas.
But as much
progress as has been made, some players say there's plenty left to accomplish.
Smith was the lowest-paid head coach in the league this season, at $1.35
million; advocates will follow with interest his negotiations for a new
contract with the often tightfisted Bears. And even with the Rooney Rule in
place, last year none of the 10 coaching vacancies went to a first-time,
minority head coach. (Shell got a second stint with the Raiders; Edwards moved
from the Jets to the Kansas City Chiefs.) "We've definitely come a long way
on paper," says Chargers tackle Roman Oben, "but that doesn't mean we
shouldn't ignore the responsibility we still have to advance things. And we
also shouldn't be afraid to talk about issues of race. The Giants just hired
the third black general manager in NFL history [ Jerry Reese]. We need to be
talking about that as well." (Several other African-Americans have
significant control over NFL personnel decisions.)
advancement and increased income comes a potential danger: complacency.
"We're all off building our 6,000-square-foot homes and playing in our
summer golf tournaments, but those things can also pacify us," Oben says.
"We're all guilty of not pushing the envelope more."
"I'm excited about this moment, but these issues also are going to be with
us for the rest of our lives."