January marked at least one major first for African Americans. For the first time in history, not one but two Blacks — the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith and the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy — led their teams to the Super Bowl, football's premier contest.
And another Black man, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, took the first step toward throwing his hat in the ring in the ultimate political contest — the battle for the nation's highest office. Obama is hardly the first African American to vie for the presidency — he stands on the broad shoulders of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun and others — but not since Jackson's 1988 bid has a Black been considered a serious contender for the Oval Office. Unlike his predecessors, Obama probably stands the best chance of becoming the first African American to win his party's presidential nomination in 2008 or beyond.
That Smith beat out his mentor Dungy by a few hours to be the first Black coach to guide his team into the National Football League's crown-jewel game makes up for the fact that his Bears handily defeated my beloved New Orleans Saints to get there.
Roughly 66 percent of National Football League players are African Americans, but Blacks have long faced formidable obstacles when it comes to filling coaching positions. In 1989, Art Shell became the first African American head coach in the NFL's modern era. In his own way, Dungy, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who got his coaching start in 1981, played his own role in diversifying the profession by recruiting Smith to be linebacker coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996.
The institution of the so-called "Rooney Rule" broke down barriers in the NFL's old-boy network by requiring teams to consider at least one minority candidate in their hiring processes. By the start of this year's season, there was a record seven Black head coaches.
"For years and years, the coaching decisions and many other decisions in professional football really followed the old way of doing things," Darrell Millner, professor of Black Studies at Portland State University, recently told The Oregonian. "These two Black coaches today are a reflection that that is changing. Their success gives an additional impetus of the continuation of that kind of change."
In a letter to the editor of his local paper, Hal Nelson, executive director of secondary education for the Sarasota County School District, wondered if divine intervention played some role in bringing two Black coaches together in the Super Bowl to "illuminate the potential of the American experience" and underscore the importance of three key qualities exhibited by Dungy and Smith: competence, character and tenacity.
"Competence is evident when one is able to achieve the goals of the organization, despite times when others will inevitably say that one has been granted the opportunity because of being a minority, female, etc. Character is evident when, in the face of such adversity, faith and spirituality allow us to first recognize our own flaws and then forgive the actions of others. Tenacity is evident when one decides to perform well despite unfair treatment, such as being dismissed unprofessionally or compensated unjustly. When we act as a land of opportunity, greatness grows," he wrote.
They give our children hope that the American Dream is possible for all members of society to attain.
Marc C. Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.