The first Super Bowl was in 1967, almost a half century ago. Back then we watched black and white television, satisfied with our three commercial channels and one public station. We were using typewriters, where the state of the art way to correct a typo was to backspace and put a strip of white paper behind the key and retype the word. And in some parts of the country it was still a challenge to rid ourselves of “whites only” signage. In other parts, the sign was invisible but ever present.
There was never a physical sign that said “Whites Only Coaches in the Super Bowl.” Yet for the first four decades of its existence, that is the way it was. I am reminded of the saying “We didn’t know how good baseball could be until we let everybody play.” It is just another application, albeit through sports, of a broader ideal we proudly claim as what makes us special in the world – letting people’s abilities rather than their privileges determine the level of participation. In such a country, its citizenry can elect a president from modest means, be he from Little Rock Arkansas or from a biracial family. And thanks to the efforts of Dan Rooney, an older white owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a good heart, the Rooney Rule that he authored while NFL chair of diversity, and its progeny in the name of Tony Dungy, the ideal has had application in professional football.
The Rooney Rule was established by the NFL in December 2002, requiring that teams at least interview minorities for head coaching positions, or face adverse consequences. And although there was a huge loophole because a team could have a “coach in waiting” and completely avoid the process, and although the repercussions were more like a hand slap (Detroit Lions with a $50,000 fine), it was still progress consistent with the ideal.
It is no coincidence that only after that rule was established did any critical mass of minority interviews and head coach hiring occur. And it is no coincidence that one of the reasons the Steelers has been one of the most successful franchises in the history of the sport during the Rooney ownership (father then son) is due to their collective ability to judge the content of the character of its players and coaches without first filtering out candidates based on non-football criteria. Tony Dungy was a free agent selection of that same owner during the whites-only coaching phase of the sport. And I fully suspect that the Rooneys had already posted Dungy as Exhibit A to convince the NFL and fellow whites-only owners that the good ole boy principle had to make room for the ideal: a decision based on the content of character and ability over the privileges of the past. And it was the Rooneys that hired Mike Tomlin as their current coach for their own team.
It is also no coincidence that Dungy had the maturity and judgment not to squander the opportunity. During his tenure as Tampa Bay’s head coach, Dungy hired Mike Tomlin while Tomlin was still obscured as an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati. Tomlin in 2009 became the youngest coach in NFL history to lead a team to a Super Bowl, and a win to boot. Dungy also hired Lovie Smith over a decade ago, who Dungy coached against in the 2007 Super Bowl. And Dungy also hired Jim Caldwell, a coach groomed by Dungy as his replacement with the Indianapolis Colts. Caldwell coached his team to the 2010 Super Bowl. So in the last four Super Bowls, half of the coaches have been African Americans, all of which are either Tony Dungy himself or his coaching progeny. And by the way, the current Tampa Bay head coach, Raheem Morris, surprised the experts by his ability at the tender age of 34 to take the Buccaneers beyond expectations in his first two years at the helm. He gained his opportunity while under the tutelage of Mike Tomlin, then defensive backs coach with the Bucs.
But this is not a beat-your-chest memo on the superiority of African American head coaches (although a study by University of Pennsylvania scholars using data from the NFL and Sports Illustrated conclude that African American coaches outperformed their counterparts). Rather, this is a tribute to the Rooneys, the NFL owners who voted for the Rooney Rule, those owners who hired Dungy, and Dungy with other enlightened coaches, all of whom prioritized a principle of equal opportunity over the status quo good ole boy network. And it is a perspective on progress. It is an observation that perhaps sports is a vehicle for human dynamics beyond what happens on the field. Many times outside of sports affirmative action is decried as being an unfair opportunity instead of using merit, (inexplicably somehow different from legacy admissions privileges). These recent Super Bowl observations provide some precedent not often reported and rarely publicized highly: that at least the Rooney Rule through the NFL has worked the way affirmative action was intended – as a means of first recognizing that due to historical biases not everyone is starting from the same place in the opportunity analysis, and that if we truly want to get to a point of letting abilities lead the way, then frankly something has to be done to eradicate the baggage that created the inequality. And that unfortunately required some owners to be forced with the possibility of adverse financial consequence unless they at least talk to some potential head coaches they otherwise would not.
To finally get a state of a relatively equal of coaching opportunities, the NFL had the political savvy to use the term “Rooney Rule” instead of the incendiary term “Affirmative Action”. They thereby minimized some of the emotional knee-jerk reactions that block our reasoning skills. And as long as we use a rather benign term, I would think most fair-minded and astute observers of the NFL would agree that African Americans did not just start being able to think X’s and O’s like coaches in 2007. All that was needed is NFL leadership to influence those who dole out the opportunity to coach. The definition of “opportunity” here is not some talisman that drops out of the sky to anoint someone without coaching skills an instant head coach position. No one is advocating that. The opportunity is for the chance to learn the craft, including the earned opportunity to be an offensive or defensive coordinator and the evolution thereafter. Perhaps now we can say, in the NFL Super Bowls at least, “We didn’t know how good coaching could be until we let everybody coach”. See, Janice Madden, Matthew Ruther, Has the NFL’s Rooney Rule Efforts “Leveled the Field” for African American Head Coach Candidates?, http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=psc_working_papers (July 15, 2010).
Monday, January 31, 2011
What’s Silently Super About This Bowl? A Tribute To The Rooneys And Tony Dungy - SportsMoney - news on the business of sports - Forbes