Figuring out which team to cheer for in the Super Bowl has usually been pretty easy for me. As has been the case with so many black Americans, I was raised to cheer for NFL teams with black coaches or black quarterbacks — no matter what.
This year, with two black coaches squaring off in Super Bowl XLI — and with no personal allegiance to Chicago or Indianapolis — I found myself free to care about the game rather than what it might mean to the civil rights movement. It took 41 years, but America finally bore witness to the universal truth that, in a context of freedom, hard work and moral character contain more promise than racial entitlement.
Even with the NFL's “Rooney Rule” (adopted in 2002) requiring any team engaged in hiring a head coach to assemble a racially diverse candidate slate, one can still make the case that government-coerced affirmative action would not have been necessary in the NFL. Neither Tony Dungy nor Lovie Smith actually needed the program. A decade ago — before Rooney — Dungy became head coach of the Tampa Bay franchise, and hired Lovie Smith as an assistant coach; they coached together there from 1996-2000.
We celebrate the fact that nearly 70 percent of NFL players this season and 22 percent of the head coaches are black. These percentages actually exceed the percentage of blacks in America as a whole. That means that blacks in the NFL now fare better than they would if the league were operated under government-mandated quotas based on population statistics. (We comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population.)
The NFL is not necessarily a model of racial virtue. It has admittedly been slow to diversify, seeing good black assistant coaches passed over, time and again, for head coaching positions. Yet, in recent history, a few risk-taking franchise owners, without being forced by the government, freely hired black coaches such as Art Shell and Dennis Green. They believed and demonstrated a strong lesson drawn from economics: The best employees produce the best results, regardless of race.
Tony Dungy has taken this economic lesson to a new level by being a major mentor of quality black coaches. Four Dungy assistants have gone on to head coaching positions, the most recent being 34-year-old Mike Tomlin, hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as that team's first black head coach.
In the end, it was hard work and moral character in a context of freedom and risk that catapulted Dungy, now leading the Indianapolis Colts, and Smith, currently with the Bears in Chicago, to the Super Bowl. It is good for black boys in America to see how being a grown-up man of virtue opens up opportunities to lead $700 million dollar football teams to the Super Bowl.
However, while many blacks hoped that their sons watched this year's Super Bowl imagining that one day, they too, could be an NFL football coach, it's important to remember that it remains far easier for blacks to become doctors and lawyers than NFL coaches. The success of Dungy and Smith is overshadowed by the fact that most black high school football players will never play college football, they'll never play professional football, and they'll never be head coaches. Black boys need to know that there are 12 times as many jobs for blacks in law and medicine as there are in sports.
A successful career — whether in football, law, or medicine — is best built on a foundation of moral character. This success is almost impossible to achieve in the midst of the self-sabotaging lifestyles lived out among so many blacks: the almost five percent incarceration rate, the 9.2 percent unemployment rate, the 11.8 percent high school dropout rate, or the 69.3 percent of births we cause outside of marriage.
Dungy and Smith, with their laid-back personalities and outspoken Christian faith, have put the consequences of virtue on display.
“I'm proud to be the first African-American coach to win this,” Dungy said after the game. “But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord's way. We're more proud of that.”
The moral of this year's historic Super Bowl extends beyond racial boundaries: In a free society, the virtues of hard work and moral character are the best keys to success.