Do Black Athletes Face Glass Ceiling?

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This year, two black coaches are taking their teams to the Super Bowl. But some still see a glass ceiling in pro and college football that keeps black athletes from receiving the credit they deserve.

TONY COX, host:

From success in the classroom, we now turn to breakthroughs on the gridiron. This year, two black coaches are taking their teams to the Super Bowl. Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts are set to face the Chicago Bears, led by Lovie Smith. It is the first time a black coach has ever gone to the NFL championship, let alone two. But commentator Richard Purcell says the glass ceiling in pro and college football is still strong.

RICHARD PURCELL: This year's NFL draft features the deepest class of successful black quarterbacks in some time. At the top of this class is LSU's JaMarcus Russel, who led his team to a blowout victory against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. It also helped that Russel's win came against Brady Quinn, the consensus number one pick in this year's draft. Russel's incredible performance in the Sugar Bowl was no different than his play all year. But it was not until the end of the season that the sports world paid attention.

In the place of Russel and other black quarterbacks, sports journalists have hype Quinn and other white quarterbacks all season. Now, assessing talent is always a gamble. But the sad fact is, at the roulette table of drafting quarterbacks, few bet on black. Sadder, as more successful black quarterbacks come out of top college programs, the same criticism is made of them. They lack, quote, "decision-making capabilities," unquote.

This lingering stereotypes about black quarterbacks reminds us of the force racism has in shaping our perceptions. There's a common metaphor used to describe the obstacle racism poses to success: the glass ceiling.

As I think about the plight facing all successful blacks, whether they are quarterbacks or quantum physicists, I think it's time to change this metaphor.

As we break through glass ceilings, I believe racism now surrounds us with funhouse mirrors, and these mirrors reflect our success in warped and convoluted ways. For example, successful black college quarterbacks are not seen as the next Tom Brady. Instead, they are used in other skill positions where decision-making is kept to a minimum.

In other professions, we are rarely seen as earning our success. Instead, in the age of affirmative action, it's assumed someone gave it to us. Despite breaking glass ceilings, racism's funhouse of mirrors shrinks our egos, distends our anxieties and makes our talents disappear. As football season comes to an end, my thoughts can't help but turn to another spectator sport: American politics.

Popular support has fueled the political rise of Senator Barack Obama. With every appearance, he continues to enthrall folks all over the political and racial spectrum. Obama's success shows he's broken many glass ceilings set in his way. With rumors swirling of a possible presidential bid, Obama seems poised to break the highs of glass ceilings. And it is this that makes me wonder, as one of our most successful political climbers, what will happen to Obama?

Like JaMarcus Russel, will Obama's obvious talents compel us to make him our nation's quarterback? Or will Obama, like many potential black quarterbacks, never be trusted to call our plays?

COX: Richard Purcell is finishing his doctoral dissertation on writer Ralph Ellison at the University of Pittsburgh.

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