FORGIVE SHELDONBROWN if he needed some time to appreciate the significance of Super Bowl XLI'scoaching matchup. The Eagles' fifth-year cornerback was just a few days removedfrom his own team's 27--24 NFC divisional-round loss to the Saints when hetuned in to the NFL Network and heard broadcasters discussing the possibilityof two African-American head coaches--Indianapolis's Tony Dungy and Chicago'sLovie Smith--facing each other in the NFL's biggest game. Only then did themagnitude of the moment sink in. "I started rooting for the Bears and theColts right then," Brown says. "At first I didn't even realize that wecould have two black head coaches in the Super Bowl. But when I did, I knewthis would be a huge deal."
That anAfrican-American NFL player might need reminding of what would become one ofthe major story lines of this year's Super Bowl illustrates the racial progressthat has been made in pro football recently. On the field, Dungy (above, left)versus Smith is a meeting of friends who share a defensive philosophy, of amentor and his former assistant, of coaching veterans who rose through theranks and now stand at the pinnacle of their profession. But it's the largersocial context that has again drawn attention to racial issues in a league inwhich two thirds of the players are black.
It was only 18years ago that the Raiders made Art Shell the first African-American head coachof the modern era. That didn't exactly kick the doors open. As late as 2002there were only two black head coaches in the league--Dungy with the Colts andHerm Edwards with the Jets--and lawyer Johnnie Cochran was threatening the NFLwith an antidiscrimination lawsuit in hopes of compelling more owners toconsider minority coaching candidates. The NFL's response was the Rooney Rule,formulated by the league's diversity committee (chaired by Steelers owner DanRooney) and adopted in December '02. It mandates that any team with ahead-coach opening must interview at least one minority for the job unless itis promoting one of its own assistants. Adoption of the rule proved to be awatershed. By the beginning of the '06 season the NFL had sevenAfrican-American coaches. (And Rooney put his money where his mouth was lastmonth by naming Mike Tomlin, a 34-year-old Vikings assistant, as Bill Cowher'ssuccessor.)
Dungy has been atthe forefront of progress. A head coach since 1996, when he was hired by theBuccaneers, he's emerged as the dean of black coaches, creating opportunitiesfor others. As in Tampa, where he gave Smith and Tomlin their first procoaching jobs and had Edwards on his staff, he has filled his Indianapolisstaff with African-Americans--eight of his 16 assistants are black, includingdefensive coordinator Ron Meeks and Jim Caldwell, the assistant headcoach/quarterbacks coach, who recently interviewed for the Cardinals' head job.Smith has done the same in Chicago, where he has six black assistants plusdefensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who's Hispanic, and defensive assistant LloydLee, a Korean-American. Rivera interviewed for four jobs last month and wasmentioned as a possible successor to Bill Parcells in Dallas.
But as muchprogress as has been made, some players say there's plenty left to accomplish.Smith was the lowest-paid head coach in the league this season, at $1.35million; advocates will follow with interest his negotiations for a newcontract with the often tightfisted Bears. And even with the Rooney Rule inplace, last year none of the 10 coaching vacancies went to a first-time,minority head coach. (Shell got a second stint with the Raiders; Edwards movedfrom the Jets to the Kansas City Chiefs.) "We've definitely come a long wayon paper," says Chargers tackle Roman Oben, "but that doesn't mean weshouldn't ignore the responsibility we still have to advance things. And wealso shouldn't be afraid to talk about issues of race. The Giants just hiredthe third black general manager in NFL history [Jerry Reese]. We need to betalking about that as well." (Several other African-Americans havesignificant control over NFL personnel decisions.)
With careeradvancement and increased income comes a potential danger: complacency."We're all off building our 6,000-square-foot homes and playing in oursummer golf tournaments, but those things can also pacify us," Oben says."We're all guilty of not pushing the envelope more."
Brown agrees."I'm excited about this moment, but these issues also are going to be withus for the rest of our lives."