At the conclusion of Super Bowl XLI, Tony Dungy hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy in celebration of becoming the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl. Considering this landmark event, one might be tempted to believe that the National Football League has entered a new milieu of racial equality. In fact, reality is not so tidy. Super Bowl history does indeed provide insight into racial issues in the NFL, but its lessons are not always positive. A careful examination of the biggest event in American sports shows how far football has progressed toward racial equality—and how far it still has to go.
Before Dungy and Lovie Smith squared off in the Super Bowl, no African American head coach had ever reached the NFL championship. The fact that two African American coaches should meet in the Super Bowl is particularly astonishing given that, in the 2006-2007 season, black men accounted for only seven of pro football’s 32 head coaching positions. The NFL has taken steps to improve its coaching diversity, most notably by instituting the Rooney Rule, which states that all franchises seeking new head coaches must interview minority candidates. But, though this rule seems to be alleviating some of the symptoms of racism, it also testifies to the deep-seated prejudices and long-established traditions that hopeful minority coaches must overcome.
Of course, coaches are not the only football personalities striving for equality. Players have also faced varying degrees of racial prejudice, and the Super Bowl provides examples of their struggle. Particularly revealing are the statistics about the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award. In the first eight years of the game, no black player was named MVP, and in the first 20 games, only five received the honor. Since Super Bowl XX, 11 black players have been named MVP. These statistics suggest, if nothing else, that African American players are at least receiving more credit for their accomplishments on football’s biggest stage.
Sadly, not all football players are created equal. Super Bowl history also provides examples of racism at the most prominent position in the sport: the quarterback. Thanks to some very unfortunate comments Rush Limbaugh made in the wake of Super Bowl XXXIX, the issue of racial equality at the quarterback position became an even more significant topic in the dialogue about modern sports. After Philadelphia Eagles starter Donovan McNabb lost the game, Limbaugh basically stated that the media had overrated him in order to turn a black quarterback into a hero. Limbaugh resigned from his ESPN broadcasting job because of the public reaction to his comments, but the issue of racism at the quarterback position did not disappear with the conservative pundit.
Winning the Super Bowl is a defining accomplishment in the career of any football player, but it is especially essential for quarterbacks. Almost all of the most venerated quarterbacks in history own championship rings, and a few of them, such as Joe Montana and Tom Brady, owe a large part of their legacy to their heroics in the postseason. In the biggest games in football history, however, African American quarterbacks have been conspicuously underrepresented. All told, only three of 82 starting Super Bowl quarterbacks have been black, and only one of those men managed to win the game.
The MVP statistics that are generally encouraging for African Americans are alarming when applied to black quarterbacks. In 41 Super Bowls, a quarterback has earned MVP honors 21 times. Only one of those quarterbacks was African American. Doug Williams earned the honor when he led the Washington Redskins to victory by passing for 340 yards and four touchdowns in Super Bowl XXII. Perhaps another African American quarterback will repeat Williams’ feat in the near future, but that event is unlikely given the current situation in the NFL. At the end of the 2006 regular season, only seven African Americans were starting professional quarterbacks. And only one of those, Steve McNair of the Baltimore Ravens, made it to the postseason.
The fact that the NFL must continue to strive to provide an environment of equal opportunity for African Americans (to say nothing of other ethnicities) does not diminish the tremendous achievements of Dungy and Smith. If anything, it only increases their significance. These men are not heralds of a newfound age of racial blindness; rather, they are tireless pioneers who struggled their entire lives to reach the highest levels of a system that has, for much of its history, excluded racial minorities. The first Super Bowl meeting between two African American head coaches is unquestionably historic, but future generations will have the task of understanding the event’s place in the NFL’s legacy in the broader context of its racial makeup.
In the second half of the Super Bowl, a Coca-Cola commercial aired that, in honor of Black History Month in February, praised heroes such as Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks. The lives of these pioneers shed light on the significance of recent football events. Robinson made history when he first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey in 1947, but the true desegregation of baseball took many years and the effort of countless people. The same lesson applies to Dungy and Smith. Now is not a time to proclaim the end of racial prejudice in football, but it is a moment to celebrate the work of these two special leaders, to remember the contributions of trailblazing head coaches such as Fritz Pollard and Art Shell who came before them, and to look forward to the efforts of those who will draw inspiration from these men and take action to make the NFL a truly level playing field.