I guess I should be ecstatic that, in the hours after coach Mike Tomlin led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl victory, no one is going on and on about race.
Yet I find myself torn.
After the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 on Sunday, most of the talk was about how the 36-year-old Tomlin is the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl and not the fact that he’s also the second African-American to win a championship.
And isn’t that the dream most of our parents always had for us – that we would one day be judged by things other than our skin color?
That’s why I’m kicking myself for my ambivalence today. In many ways, I feel I’m betraying my mother and grandparents, not to mention Tomlin, whose class and coaching acumen during this title run are among the many reasons America isn’t having in-depth discussions about “a black coach winning the Super Bowl.”
But the truth is: I’m scared.
I’m scared this silence about Tomlin’s skin color is another step toward people assuming our country has completely rid itself of racial inequities. I had that same feeling in the pit of my stomach in the days after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, when so many sociologists and media outlets were reminding us that America had changed its stripes.
Are things dramatically better in the NFL these days? Well, yeah. I’d be a fool to not acknowledge that. The implementation of the Rooney Rule, a 2002 mandate requiring NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching vacancies, has played a major role in the shift. Since the Rooney Rule has been in place, 11 black head coaches have been hired.
But even before Tomlin’s team won the championship, people were questioning whether the Rooney Rule was still necessary. And that’s why I’m nervous.
Things have improved for black head coaches in the NFL, but the numbers still are paltry. Black quarterbacks in the NFL no longer warrant major headlines. But black head coaches? With the recent firings of Cleveland’s Romeo Crennel and Kansas City’s Herm Edwards, only six of the league’s 32 head coaches are black – this for a league in which two-thirds of the players are African-American.
I’m in no way implying that two-thirds of the league’s coaches should be black, but it’s clear more work needs to be done. We have NOT reached the mountaintop.
Again, I feel a little guilty about making such an issue about Tomlin’s race today. I’d even bet that he doesn’t want the postgame breakdowns to focus on that.
But I’m sorry, Mike. We’re far from the point of acting as if a black coach winning the Super Bowl still isn’t a big deal.
C. Jemal Horton has covered sports for the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star and Charlotte Observer. He currently is group sports editor for Carolina Weekly Newspapers.