The National Football League is the most successful professional sports organization in America, light years ahead of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association in terms of marketing, promotion, and TV viewership. They are also by far and away the most insular, clubby, chummy group of evil rich, white males that ever banded together to make a fortune.
They are the only professional sports league in America who successfully broke a strike (1987) and, in so doing, got the players association union decertified. The way they accomplished this feat was the result of one of the most cynical betrayals of football fans imaginable; replacement players. Placing teams on the field that were little better than junior college outfits and calling them professionals, NFL owners brazenly fobbed off the games to the fans, the media, and even the giant TV networks and had the gall to count the wins and losses of the replacement players toward a team’s final record after the strike ended late in the season.
The league is extraordinarily tolerant of bad behaviour, even criminal activity. At least 35 players were arrested in 2006 – 8 members of the Cincinnati Bengals alone – on criminal charges ranging from gun possession to assault. Steroid use is still rampant, largely because the league continues to refuse to deal with it. A perusal of the NFL Crimes Newsblog will quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that the NFL could care a tinker’s damn what kind of criminals and scofflaws are representing them on the turf every Sunday.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love professional football. I love to watch it, to talk about it, to write about it. But it is good sometimes to take a step back and examine the cost of our obsession – the real human toll in broken lives, broken dreams, and broken spirits that, at bottom, are the responsibility of the owners and, by extension, their creation; the administration of the National Football League, Inc.
The league’s owners ride players like cheap horses until, unable to perform any longer, set them adrift to deal with a myriad of health and psychological problems on their own. The NFL Players Association President Gene Upshaw proudly proclaims:
“The bottom line is, I don’t work for [retired NFL football players]. They don’t hire me and they can’t fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That’s who pays my salary.”
And so you are left with the fact that many NFL players retire into poverty and die much younger than is normal.
All this would be bad enough. But like other professional sports, the struggle of African Americans to achieve recognition much less equality in this multi-billion dollar industry has been a combination of insidious racism and cloying condescension. And nowhere is this borne out more than in the “storyline” that is emerging during this Super Bowl interregnum regarding the coaches of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts – the first black head coaches to win through to the Super Bowl in NFL history.
Please note the year. It is the year of our Lord (or, for you agnostics out there, the Common Era) 2007. I don’t want to be a party pooper – especially since the NFL and an all too willing media are pulling a collective deltoid muscle patting themselves on the back for being so progressive and enlightened – but what exactly is there to celebrate about the fact that 144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and more than 40 years after the Civil Rights Bill passed Congress, a person of color has led his team to the biggest sporting event in America?
Instead, the story should be what the hell took so long? The reason that this will not be the story is that the answer would reveal several uncomfortable truths about the NFL and perhaps American society in general that some believe should remain buried.
The dirty little secret in the NFL and, in all professional sports save perhaps the NBA, is not the success of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith but rather of all black head coaches. In fact, black coaches are more successful as a group than the average. Why is that? It’s because the secret that is whispered in the halls of power in the NFL and the various teams is that in order to be hired in the first place, an African American coaching candidate must be better than the white candidate.
Why have black coaches been so successful? Seems as though it’s because a black man can’t get a job coaching in the NFL unless he’s uncommonly impressive. The eight black coaches in the NFL’s modern era have a combined record of 442-368-1, a .546 winning percentage. They’ve made the playoffs in 29 of their 50 combined seasons.
These results mirror what University of Pennsylvania economics professor Janice Madden found in her 2004 study of the differences in job performance between black and white coaches. She determined that the success of black coaches was “consistent with NFL teams ‘requiring’ that African-American coaches be better than Whites to obtain and to keep their positions.”
‘Twas an interesting conclusion, but it didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure that out. Old folks have been saying similar things for years. In a 1999 interview with Time, Chris Rock said he worked as hard as he does because “[he] was raised to believe that [black people] had to be better than white people to succeed,” a take on racism not unique to him.
The same held true for years regarding black quarterbacks and still does to some extent although players like Vince Young and Michael Vick are rapidly changing that dynamic. And the same could be said for front office positions. A variety of reasons have been given for the dearth of black sports executives, including the belief that African Americans aren’t interested in those jobs because of the salary differential between player and front office. But is that the real reason? Candidates for those executive positions come from a wide variety of backgrounds,and not all of them are former athletes. In recent years, there has been some progress in Major League Baseball in that a concerted has been underway to seek out and hire minority executives. And the NBA even has a program in place to promote ownership of franchises by minorities.
But it was only in 2002 that the NFL, threatened with a lawsuit by the Black Coaches Association, initiated a rule that whenever there was a head coaching vacancy, the NFL franchise had to interview at least one minority candidate. To say that this action, forced upon the league because of the scandalous lack of black head coaches, was a little late in coming would be an understatement. And this is the way it has been in the NFL for most of its existence. The rich white man’s club was perfectly content to use the African American to put fannies in the seats. But underneath the glitz and the glamour, the screaming fans and adoring press, there was the ugly undercurrent of discrimination based on skin color.
Can affirmative action “fix” this situation? Perhaps not. Perhaps, it is a simple matter of time passing and barriers being broken one by one until, as Martin Luther King so eloquently said, we begin to judge people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Or, in the case of NFL coaches, whether they are a part of the “the in crowd” who are at the front of the line when jobs are handed out regardless of past performance. In fact, real progress in the NFL should be measured not by the success to be had by black coaches, but perhaps by their failures as well:
That isn’t to say there hasn’t been progress in minority hiring in the NFL. It’s just that more significant milestones in the fight for equity in hiring have been overlooked. There was greater cause for celebration when Ray Rhodes, fresh off two horrendous seasons coaching the Eagles, was hired by the Packers in 1999. The same could be said when Dungy, after a string of disappointing postseasons in Tampa Bay, was hired by the Colts shortly after being fired by the Buccaneers.
After years of black coaches being passed over for retreads, Rhodes and Dungy—and, later, Dennis Green and Herman Edwards—had become retreads themselves. They’d become insiders, part of the head coaching network. Their names were considered right alongside other guys that, for whatever reasons, hadn’t gotten it done before but were still respected in the business.
That is progress.
Two men doing the jobs they’re paid to do? Not so much.
And to that, I say Amen.
So during the next two weeks as you listen to the self congratulatory tone among commentators and league officials about what a “tremendous achievement” it is to have a black coach in the Super Bowl, it may be well to keep in mind the history of the NFL and why that achievement – so long in coming – should only spur the league to redouble their efforts to bring equality of opportunity to all.