Mike Tomlin is the second African-American coach to win the Super Bowl. Any football fan older than 10 probably knows that. So it was fascinating that the fact wasn’t played up during NBC’s telecast Sunday.
I’m not sure if his race wasn’t even mentioned at all. And that’s a good thing.
Just two years ago, two black men – Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith – wore the head coach’s headsets on the sidelines in Super Bowl XLI was hailed as a racial milestone. Rightfully so. No African-American coach had ever led a team to the NFL’s ultimate game and certainly no black coach had ever won it.
Dungy’s victory was moving and inspiring, especially in context of his personal story, one laced with triumphs over naysayers and personal tragedy. It was the story line of the entire event, from the moment the two men won their respective conferences until long after they hugged at midfield after the final gun.
Dungy’s legacy now stands alongside the likes of Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, John Thompson and other “firsts” – some famous, many more less so well known – whose achievements marked the elimination of barriers long held tight by American society.
Then something funny happened. America elected a black president.
Just like that, watching black men reach certain heights just isn’t that startling any more.
A black man is named CEO of a major company. Yeah?
A black man completes a groundbreaking surgery. No big deal.
A black man wins the Super Bowl. Really? I didn’t notice.
Even the airwaves are now filled 24/7 with images of a black man in the Oval Office.
Call it the Obama Effect, and it’s an interesting sign of “progress,” a small not insignificant sign that we may be moving faster now toward the “dream” when we are all judged first and foremost by our skills, by our work and by our character than prejudged by our pigmentation.
And that’s a great thing.
To be true, plenty of people noticed Tomlin’s color. Some rooted for Pittsburgh because of it (though more quietly than two years ago). Others rooted for Pittsburgh in spite of it. But most simply rooted based on the color of their preferred jersey.
Now, as I’ve written before, there are still many “firsts” to be achieved, many areas in every industry to be penetrated by women and people of color. Especially sports.
But for one might, most of America looked at a black man and saw a coach, not a black coach. They saw a man.