Beyond the Superbowl: Race and Pro-Football

Two Black coaches in the Superbowl should not blind us to a long history of institutional racism in the NFL.

By Jarad Sanchez Feb 15, 2007

This year’s Superbowl was historic, and not just because of Prince’s half-time performance of "Purple Rain."

As many of you know, two black head coaches led their teams to the Superbowl with the Indianaopolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy emerging as the first black head coach to win it all. Since, the National Football League and their corporate sponsors have presented Superbowl 41 as a triumph for America and a huge leap for the NFL.

But the news, while great, should not blind us to a long history of institutional racism in the NFL, and also, ongoing salary disparities that persist along racial lines.

For decades, black players were denied the opportunity to play in the league. They were considered inferior to their white counterparts. Had it not been for the success of the American Football League, whose rosters were filled with black players, and the eventual merger of the AFL with the NFL in 1970, professional football teams likely would have continued their informal ban on black athletes. The Washington Redskins were the last team to produce an all white player roster and the owner at the time would have gladly continued that tradition. The city of Washington D.C., however, threatened to end the team’s stadium lease in 1962, forcing the last holdout to integrate or disappear.

Although teams have allowed blacks to play, they hardly trust them in leadership positions.

It was once believed that no team could ever reach and win the Superbowl with a black quarterback. That myth was exploded in 1989 when Doug Williams was named Superbowl MVP ironically while calling the signals for the Washington Redskins.

The myth that a black coach couldn’t win a Superbowl was buried this last week, but will this victory change the condition of black head coaches in the NFL?

Well here are some sports stats I analyzed from numbers on that might shed some light on the question:

· In the 100 plus years history of professional football, there have only been eight black head coaches, all of them were hired after 1989

· Out of 32 teams, there have never been more than seven black head coaches in the league at once

· The average white head coach in the NFL had nine years of NFL coaching experience before they were hired as head coaches. The average black head coach had twelve

· All of the current black head coaches played or coached in a Superbowl before being hired as head coaches, less than half of the white coaches had done the same

· The average black head coach participated in two or more Superbowls before they were hired as head coach; the average white coach participated in less than one Superbowl (if that’s possible) before landing their current jobs

· The black head coach with the least NFL experience had been an assistant coach in the NFL for seven years before landing his first head coaching job; the white head coach with the least experience had only been coaching in the NFL for one

Even this much-celebrated Superbowl can be firmly placed in this tradition. Lovie Smith, the head coach of the Chicago Bears was the first black head coach to lead his team to the Superbowl. He was also the NFL coach of the year last year. A final superlative? Smith was the lowest paid head coach in the entire NFL.

In addition, the Los Angeles Times pointed to the fact that Bobby Petrino, the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and who is white, just signed a deal that will pay him $5 million per year. Bear in mind that he has never been a head coach in the NFL and never won a single professional football game as a head coach. He is being paid over $1 million more per year than Tony Dungy, who is black and just won the Superbowl. In fact, Coach Petrino, in his first year as an NFL head coach will make almost as much as Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy combined.

Now I know some of my fellow football fans and the league itself will throw the red flag and challenge everything I just wrote. They will say that the Rooney Rule, the rule that requires all teams to interview one "minority" for a vacant head coaching position, is making progress and that, eventually, there will be equity in the NFL. And then they will point to the wealth of college coaching experience that most of the white head coaches in the NFL had before joining the professional football fraternity as compensation for their lack of NFL experience.

I disagree. First, the Rooney Rule only requires an owner to interview coaches of color, not to hire them. Every year in professional football, there are at least four head coaching vacancies. In the eighteen years since the first black coach (Art Shell) was hired, only eight of these dozens of vacancies have ever been filled by a black coach.

And if professional football is bad when it comes to hiring black head coaches, college football is even worse. There are 32 teams in the NFL and there are currently six black head coaches. There are over 100 teams in major college football in America but there are only six black head coaches in the nation at that level.

It’s hard out there for black coaches. They are unwelcome in the college ranks and they must have more professional experience, more wins, more Superbowls and be willing to work for less than their white counterparts to land their dream job in the NFL. Isn’t it interesting how sport reflects life?