Monday, January 22, 2007

Saluting an Accomplishment

On an Alabama Football message board that I frequently read, there was a post following the Pats/Colts NFL game tonight that said, "Congrats Tony and Lovie -- first african american HC's to superbowl. very fitting." It was a salute to Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy & Chicago Bears skipper Lovie Smith. Both are African-Americans. Both will share the honor of being the first African-American head coaches to lead their teams into the Super Bowl.

The responses to this thread were varied. Some echo'd the adulatory sentiment. Others questioned what the big deal was. And thus, as often happens on messsage boards, a debate ensued. And since I have friends who are weary of "reverse-discrimination" and don't seem to share this congratulatory sensibility, I feel the need to write.

"What's the big deal? Plenty of white coaches have made the Super Bowl. What's so special about two black coaches?"

I understand the sentiment. I really do. And I'm tempted to feel that way, too. I know it seems like any time a black man takes any kind of small step, it's celebrated. For people of my generation it's hard to understand why a colored man gets praise for something lots of white people have already done.

The reason for that is simple: it's ignorance. For a great deal of 18-35 year-old white males, discrimination is not something we experienced growing up. We've heard about it. We've read it about it history books. Now I'm not saying that racism & profiling still don't exist today, but it's not as publicly exposed as it was 30-to-40-to-50 years ago. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was making speeches. When the Ku Klux Klan was an accepted way of southern life. When "coon" was part of the everyday vernacular.

And for those of us who do not share that perspective, we will never know what it was like to grow up in Tony Dungy's or Lovie Smith's shoes. I really don't know what that kind of discrimination is like. Those guys grew up in a generation where opportunities & priveleges were hardly open. They had to work harder & do it twice as good as the next guy because of the color of their skin.

Whether or not it's admitted, there is a stigma against black coaches. It was accepted as common thought as recently as 25 years ago that African-Americans could not make good quarterbacks. They simply didn't have the mental capacity to handle the demands of the position. And it was people like Doug Williams (the first black QB to play in & win the Super Bowl) and Warren Moon (the first black QB to enter the NFL Hall of Fame) who changed that perception. The same perception existed & STILL exists for African-American head coaches. They aren't smart enough to handle the demands of being a head coach. They're not as good at X's & O's. They're not as smart at the psychology of motivating players. They can't handle the public relations demands of dealing with the media day in & day out.

And now Tony Dungy & Lovie Smith have proven those critics wrong. They climbed the coaching ladder -- a steeper & more demanding ladder than their white counterparts were made to climb. I'm not even beginning to mention some of the familial & financial hardships that often come from arising out of the African-American culture. And after jumping through all those hoops, finally they have made it to the pinnacle of sports achievement: The Super Bowl. As a white man, I will never understood what it took to get there.

But, there's another part of this that's difficult for people of my demographic to swallow. As was written last Friday by Bill Simmons,'s "The Sports Guy:"

Now here's where a slight dose of hypocrisy comes in. We spend so much time complaining about underachieving superstars, overpaid and overhyped players, incompetent GMs, rookie flops, dreadful officiating, troublemakers, thugs, players and coaches doing/saying dumb things, bad trades and signings, annoying announcers and writers, and overrated teams getting too much credit -- by the way, I do as much complaining and mocking as anyone, I'm not absolving myself here -- that I'm starting to wonder if we'll ever fully embrace a special team anymore. Are we too cynical? Are we too desperate to poke fun at everything? Has being a "fan" morphed into something else? Has the fan-sports dynamic started to become a little unhealthy?

Think about it. As recently as 20 years ago, the concept of a sports radio station didn't even exist. Neither did the internet or DirecTV. Fantasy leagues and SportsCenter were just starting to round into shape, but it was still pretty early for both. You simply watched a game, discussed it with friends, devoured the ensuing newspaper coverage, argued about the game at work or school the following day, then you waited for the next one. Now sports has evolved into a 24/7 event, between the instant highlights and internet coverage, thousands and thousands of Web sites and blogs, an infinite number of fantasy leagues, a never-ending slew of sports radio shows, sportswriters screaming at one another on TV and everything else you can imagine. Every game and event is digested and processed almost instantly, and then it's rehashed and digested again, and then it's beaten into the ground, and within a few hours everyone feels obligated to come up with their own unique angle on things -- even if it's extreme, even if it's insane, even if it's blisteringly nasty or vicious, even if it's completely nonsensical or inane.

And that's what we're REALLY afraid of. We just know that this is the kind of story angle that the ESPN/Talk-Radio/Sports-Print-Media Machine will love. And we just KNOW that they are going to milk this Super Bowl sub-plot for all it's worth. And just when we finally think that cow is all milked out, they will squeeze some more. We will be sick of it after two weeks, and then we'll have to listen to the announcers drone on about it the whole game during the Super Bowl. And the thought of all that is exhaustingly reprehensible.

Well, here's the solution: turn off SportsCenter. Go without a little Sports Talk Radio. And read instead of going to

One other interesting angle about these coach's success. Since the NFL is renowned for being "the copy-cat league" (that is, "If that concept/philosophy/method is working for someone else, maybe we ought to employ that in our franchise as well!"), hiring an African-American coach could become the new trend. Heck, it could carry into the NCAA. And you may think that to be dumb & think NFL exec's are smarter than that. But franchises have copy-catted dumber things before.

This is a significant event from many perspectives. Perhaps not for some of us with a priveleged caucasian perspective. But for many, this is a real inspiration. I'd say it's even on the scale of the Miracle on Ice -- the 1980 USA Gold-Medal-winning Hockey Team at Lake Placid that raised the spirits of an entire nation. This kind of scenario was unimaginable a generation ago. And now? Doors will be opened. Children will be encouraged. Barriers will be removed.

Congratulations Tony & Lovie. I appreciate your dedication to chasing your dreams, and I salute your dual accomplishment of making it to the Super Bowl. Well Done.

No comments: