Affirmative Action and The Super Bowl

Should affirmative action be credited with the appearance of two black coaches at the Super Bowl? Commentator Robin Washington is editorial page editor at The Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we said, this Super Bowl Sunday, black coaches will head up both teams on the gridiron. And no matter who wins, commentator Robin Washington says the reason for this black leadership is a victory in its own right.

ROBIN WASHINGTON: When Americans watch the Super Bowl, this Sunday, they'll be cheering for affirmative action even if they don't know it. By now, everyone knows the game between the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will feature not only the first black coach to make it to the Super Bowl, the Bears' Lovie Smith, but the second, Tony Dungy of Indianapolis.

It's long overdue and baseball has been almost 15 years since Cito Gaston led the Toronto Blue Jays to become the first black manager to go to and win the World Series in 1992. He did it again in '93.

Basketball has a better record with Bill Russell becoming that sport's first black head coach with the Boston Celtics in 1966. He won the NBA title of the next season and again the year after that. And in the National Hockey League, well, we're still waiting for that.

Tony Dungy has been a head coach for years, first leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. Then he was the fourth African-American to head up a modern era of National Football League team. Lovie Smith was one of his assistants, and the two are still good friends.

Smith got his first head coach job with the Bears in 2004. By then, the NFL's Rooney Rule was in place. What's the Rooney Rule? Well, it's the National Football League's affirmative action program, specifically for head coaches. And it requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for the top jobs. It was created after a report in 2002, co-authored by the late Johnny Cochran, showed that black coaches outperform their white counterparts but were more often passed up for head coaching jobs.

The NFL takes the rule seriously. In 2003, the league fined the Detroit Lions for violating it, by not interviewing any minority candidates for a vacancy. Again, the rule doesn't state the teams have to hire a person of color, just that they have to be interviewed, and that the pool of candidates has to be diverse.

And that's exactly what affirmative action is all about, even if the term is terribly misused. It's not about quotas or racial preferences, whatever those are, and it certainly doesn't say you have to hire an unqualified person. No matter how many lawsuits Johnny Cochran may have threatened, does anyone think for a minute, the NFL owners would agree to hire unqualified coaches to lead their multibillion-dollar franchises? Of course not.

Lovie Smith proves that. Neither the Bears nor any other team will call any of the half-dozen black head coaches in the league affirmative action hires but that's what they are. And for that matter, so are the white coaches hired under the rule who were chosen out of a pool of diverse candidates and deemed to be the best person for that particular job.

This year, two of those diverse coaches are in the Super Bowl where there can be no question about their qualifications. So go ahead and cheer. Who's going to win? I'm betting on the black guy.

MARTIN: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota.

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