What Place Does Race Have in Sports?

By the time the Indianapolis Colts meet the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl on Sunday -- that unofficial yet quintessential American holiday -- I'm sure that most of us surface-dwellers will have been apprised of the added significance of this one. Never before has any African American head coach taken a football team to the Super Bowl, yet this year, we will have two black coaches facing each other with the NFL championship on the line.

Some will cheer the prospect, some will sigh and say "its about time," some will deny that the event holds any relevance or significance, while others will be actively pissed off about the whole thing, wondering why the media has to make a big deal about 'minority' coaches when the league is almost 70 percent black. That latter group intrigues me.

As a black man and former collegiate football player, I've always been absolutely fascinated at the intersection of race and sport. Having heard the fanfare, and experienced on the one hand the almost childlike idealism we attach to these games and, on the other, observed the double standards and encroachment of our pervasive societal psychoses onto even this, our seemingly most sacred of public spaces, I can't help but take notice.

Sports, as fully evidenced by the 'event' the Super Bowl has become, are entertainment: a respite from the real world; an 'escape goat' (to appropriate a charming NBA misnomer), to be laden with our hopes, dreams, desires and sublimated aggression. What else explains the puritan zeal with which anti-doping officials guard the line between mere humanity and homo sapiens augmentis? Or that our anti-intellectual culture ascribes a higher esteem to its sports nerds, flush with batting averages, records and other statistical trivia, than the computer geeks who power its modern economy?

I'm a participant in all that, no doubt. But what brings me a particularly Duboisian joy about athletics are those moments in which the reality of sport belies the myth of the meritocracy that most Americans, in their naiveté, cling to so strongly.

I grew up watching sports on TV and couldn't help but note the differences in descriptions that announcers would use when discussing players. One guard in a basketball game makes a pass and it's 'instinctive.' Another guard, of a different hue, makes the same play, and it's 'heady.' One guy is a 'fiery competitor,' while another player exhibiting the same behavior is a 'team cancer'. 'Showboat'/ 'Individualist.'

The dichotomies amuse me to this day. It's almost as fun as looking up the various connotations of black and white in the dictionary. When legendary player (and coach) Bill Russell served as an NBA analyst and pointed out some of these contradictions in terms, he caught heat from those who thought that he was politicizing the announcer's booth. As if the status quo wasn't just a different and unchallenged form of politics. By and large, we don't want to think, at least not overtly, about any colors beyond those belonging to our team. Much as we'd like to believe in some innate purity of sport, any human undertaking is inherently flawed.

Doug Williams, the first black starting quarterback to participate in and win a Super Bowl accomplished that feat in 1988. And yet, almost 20 years later, on the official message board of an NFL team, I can read folks wondering whether a black person, in general, has what it takes, intellectually, to be an NFL quarterback, while, in the reader response section of a major daily newspaper's Web site, there are numerous comments calling African American players monkeys and thugs, interchangeably.

That's not surprising to me. I'm under no delusion that we'll ever be rid of those kinds of folks who probably proudly get their information from the Klan Kable Knetwork (or some Fox News affiliate). What is, however, frustrating is the number of people who, in the midst of all of that, question the significance of a black coach in the Super Bowl, or why the NFL, in response to years of criticism for its dearth of African American coaches, enacted the so-called Rooney rule, in which the team owners must bring in at least one 'minority' candidate for an interview when trying to fill a head coaching vacancy.

It's these people who fail to see the connection between the unabashed racist and the more dangerous person who claims no racial animus, yet just happens, time and again, to make decisions that are unfavorable to nonwhites and, especially, African Americans. To the person who innocently posted (gotta love the honesty that internet anonymity engenders) that he thought whites were just naturally better quarterbacks than blacks, I posed the following question:


"What do you think happens when significant numbers of whites hold the position that "whites naturally have better credit than blacks," or "are better suited for management positions" regardless of facts? What if they, like you, define racism only as burning a cross, or calling someone the n-word? Surely their little personal preferences or private beliefs don't have any adverse impact, right?"_
This is precisely why testing agencies can go into any metropolitan area in the U.S. and conduct tests with black and white applicants, with the black applicant having better qualifications and both of them sharing characteristics so similar as to make them indistinguishable beyond race. And even today, those tests consistently demonstrate significant bias in housing (rental or purchase), employment, financial services, etc. Nothing major. Just little stuff like that which affects our quality of life, directly.
This mindset is so pervasive that I suspect the lot of them must have learned about slavery, segregation and discrimination by reading Lemony Snicket's authoritative tome on the history of American racism entitled "A Series of Unfortunate Coincidences."

But what's this have to do with football? It's simple, really. Black advancements are indexed to a series of psychological defeats for white supremacy in this country. Sure, we look back to Jackie Robinson, reverently, as part of the era that broke down the prohibitions against black participation in American professional sports. What followed integration of the baseball diamond, basketball court, and football field, however, was more of a tactical retreat than a complete capitulation of the white superiority complex.

You see, 'Cism (it's been around so long, we may as well have a friendly nickname for it) necessitates the dehumanization or, at least, devaluation of the 'Other' in order to justify one's relationship to them. Centuries ago, the ostensibly moral and Christian European settlers, the proto-Americans, simply had to tell themselves that Africans were subhuman, or admit their grievous sins and have their heads explode from the cognitive dissonance. As time marched on, they grudgingly gave ground, inch by inch, conceding creativity, athleticism and other forms of, er, physical prowess, while maintaining a shrinking list of prized attributes as the basis of their justified hegemony.

Preservation of these underlying fictions absolutely required that the standards be moved. "Oh. A negro [black man, African American, whatever our nomenclature du jour] can play [insert positions noted for speed, athleticism, reaction] but they'll never make a good [insert positions noted for intelligence, decision-making and leadership]."

When I played football, during the mid-to late-80s, my college team was replete with black athletes who were former All-City, All-County and All-State Quarterbacks, who, 'coincidentally,' ended up playing anything but quarterback at the collegiate level. We didn't discuss it much, with the exception of a kid who came in after me, determined to stay a QB, who grew frustrated and eventually transferred to another school.

Our head coach for my first two years went and coached another school in the same conference, where he shortly thereafter won a National Championship, coincidentally, with a black quarterback. Our quarterback's coach, and sometimes offensive coordinator, remained behind and was promoted to head coach, and continued the streak of never starting a black QB, until he was fired several losing seasons later.

I don't know that he was a racist, or, if he was, if he knew that he was a racist. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he was likely looking for and not finding some long, amorphous and unevenly applied list of intangibles which his black quarterback prospects just never *quite* seemed to possess in the requisite amounts. Likewise, I imagine that for a number of NFL owners and General Managers, the want of similar intangibles kept the NFL coaches fraternity an exclusively white province for such a long time.

And now we have two black head coaches in the Super Bowl. In February, no less. Not quite the March on Washington or the 14th Amendment, sure, but a pretty big deal, by my reckoning. But even this is just a start. Do I want all the coaches to be black? Nope. Of course not. But this is exceptionalism. For their parts, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, the respective coaches of the Colts and Bears are exemplary. Not just good, but great coaches and people, who command respect and exhibit high moral character. They are self-professed Christians who, by all accounts, walk the walk, treating everyone around them with dignity, conducting themselves with grace.

One Bears player noted that in the three years that Smith has been head coach, he has never cursed, nor yelled at the players even once. And Smith himself will mention in a minute that he models himself in style and demeanor after Dungy, for whom he was a longtime assistant. These are not just your run-of-the-mill dudes. Again, they are exceptional.

My theory is that true progress is not measured in superstardom but in mediocrity. In the NBA, we rarely pay attention to the number of black coaches anymore. Like their white counterparts before them and to this day, there are enough of them that we no longer have a mere handful of guys who had to be great just to get a shot and produce quickly before being fired. We've got good ones. And average ones. And scrubs. And it's not a big deal anymore. In college football, and inexorably, the NFL, we're getting to the point that we can have as many mediocre black quarterbacks as white ones. Dr. King, they are fulfilling the dream, one scrub at a time.

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