by Justin Eberlein
This past Sunday night, the Indianapolis Colts’ 18 point comeback marked the largest comeback in championship game history. While the front pages are covered with stories about Peyton Manning finally “winning the big game” and the New England Patriots’ dynasty finally coming to a close, there has been another story waiting to happen for over 85 years – an African-American coach will win the Super Bowl.
Although one can look all the way back to Hall of Famer Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard becoming co-head coach (while still the team’s running back) of the Akron Pros in 1921 to find the first instance of an African-American head coach of an NFL team, one must look nearly seven decades past that to find the next instance of an African-American head coach in the NFL. In 1980, all head coaches in the NFL were Caucasian and there were only 14 African-American coaches (all assistants) in the whole NFL. The first African-American head coach of a modern-day NFL team was Art Shell, who was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 1989. In 2002, there were only two African-American head coaches in the NFL and only 156 assistant coaches were African-Americans (28% of all assistants). Of course, the NFL is not alone in its lack of diversity, as only 7 of 119 Division I football programs have African-American head coaches, and in the business world, there are only four African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies. The number of minority coaches in the NFL is in stark contrast to the actual composition of the NFL, as roughly two out of three players in the NFL are African-American (measured 69% after the 2004 season). The differences in these numbers raised the question of whether minority coaching candidates were getting a fair shot at jobs in the NFL.
In 2002, attorneys Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. and Cyrus Mehri (both attorneys who have had experience fighting racial discrimination at major corporations) enlisted labor economist Dr. Janice Madden to study the performance and retention of NFL coaches in an effort to answer that question. As a result of the study, Cochran and Mehri produced a report, “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” here is an excerpt of some of their conclusions:
“The parallels between the struggles of African-Americans [in the business world] and within the NFL coaching ranks are striking. For years, we have discovered and documented how minority professionals are forced to significantly outperform their white counterparts to advance half as far. And even those employees who break through the glass ceiling are afforded far less room for error than similarly situated whites. The same is true among NFL coaches, and we have the numbers to prove it.”
In 2002, as a result of pressure from both within and outside of the NFL (including the Player’s Association, many football commentators, ex-players and coaches, and others), the NFL attempted to create a more equitable hiring process for minority candidates. With help from the Fritz Pollard Alliance (named for Hall of Famer, Fritz Pollard), a group “organized for the purpose of promoting diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, front office and scouting staffs of [NFL] teams,” the NFL created the NFL’s Diversity Committee, and sought ways to find more equitable hiring practices for the NFL’s front office and coaching jobs. The NFL’s Diversity Committee then established what has become known as “The Rooney Rule,” which penalizes teams for not interviewing minority candidates for head coaching jobs. The rule was named for the committee’s Chair, Daniel M. Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who just hired Mike Tomlin this past week; Tomlin will become the first African-American head coach in Steelers’ history. Through offering career development and networking opportunities for minority coaches, education of NFL team owners and managers, and by helping the NFL change rules and practices to support diversity, the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA) has been instrumental to helping the NFL come closer to their goals of bringing equality in hiring to front offices of the NFL.
As Cochran and Mehri noted in their 2002 report, football is much more than a game to many Americans, in their words:
Football is "America's game." But it is more than a game. It is deeply woven into the fabric of our society and part of our shared culture as Americans. In city after city around the country, football provides a rich common ground for a diverse fan base. Each week people of all backgrounds discuss, debate, celebrate and agonize - together - over the fortunes and disappointments of their teams. We… love the sport and we believe that
America's Game should represent 's diversity and the best values in our society. America
While this Super Bowl may be seen by many as a sign of progress for equality in the NFL, some people still highlight the fact that while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go for the NFL. Dr. Madden revisited her 2002 study in 2004 and the results suggested, once again, that the success of African-American coaches was, “consistent with African American coaches being held to higher standards to [obtain and keep] their jobs in the NFL.” Some, such as Bomani Jones of ESPN.com’s Page 2 suggest that rather than a sign of progress, the success of African-American coaches relative to their White counterparts “[appears] to be more a symptom of racism than its cure.” On the subject of this year’s Super Bowl, Jones continues in his recent column:
“Super Bowl XLI should be remembered because of its coaches, and maybe it should be commemorated. But it should not be celebrated, nor should any group use it to show how much better things have gotten with regard to race. There is nothing worth celebrating about a league that has to force its franchises to interview non-white coaching candidates and finally has a black coach in the 41st edition of its biggest game… That's not a good thing. That's a damn shame.”
Of course, most people feel overwhelmingly positive about Dungy and Smith advancing to the Super Bowl this past weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers hiring Mike Tomlin as head coach on this past Monday, and the New York Giants hiring Jerry Reese as their Senior Vice President and General Manager the previous Monday, making him the third African-American GM in the league. After the Championship weekend, Cyrus Mehri of the FPA pointed out that, “another barrier has been torn down… Meaningful progress is being made… As each minority coach gets an opportunity and has success, that creates opportunities for others in the pipeline. We believe that will accelerate with the success of Tony and Lovie.'' Doug Williams, who was the first African-American Quarterback to play in and win the Super Bowl when he led the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII (1988), even compared his feelings after this Chamionship weekend to winning the Super Bowl, saying, “Winning the Super Bowl that day wasn't as significant to me as this past Sunday. I didn't see it then. I can see this. I can feel this.” Williams continued, “What happened in