Monday, January 22, 2007

The last men standing

Well, well, well. If you live long enough, it seems, you will see everything. On Sunday, Feb. 4, Super Bowl XLI, the forty-first distillation of the great national gladiatorial pastime, the brutal choreography that is American football, will take place amid a backdrop of history. When the Chicago Bears face off against the Indianapolis Colts, for the first time in both the history of the National Football League and the history of big-money professional team sports in America, the championship game will be played by teams lead by black coaches.

For reasons that go beyond regional partisanship, this will be the first Super Bowl in memory where the whole country wins, no matter which coach or quarterback hoists the Vince Lombardi trophy next month.

It’s hard to always make a big deal out of the names of sports teams, but this time the names of the two teams left standing after sixteen weeks are a match for the respective physicalities of the two men leading those teams into the spectacle of the Super Bowl. You can’t look at sturdy, methodical Lovie Smith, coach of the Chicago Bears and not come away with a legitimate comparison to an actual bear, big, burly, quietly strong. Likewise, in Indianapolils Colts coach Tony Dungy, there’s the lean, wiry, angular countenance of a colt, brash and quick, daring and stronger than it realizes it is.

What they have in common is being brothers at the top of their game, two black men who each defeated teams coached by coaches with Super Bowl rings in their safe-deposit boxes -- damn!

It always happens like that: After years of coming up empty, it all comes together in a single day. Smith preceded Dungy to Super Bowl XLI by about four hours, his team beating a game and worthy New Orleans Saints squad, in the National Football Conference championship game, in a 39-14 asswhipping. Then Dungy’s Colts had just enough to get past the New England Patriots, 38-34, to win the American Football Conference title game.

And just that fast, history was made. It caught us all unawares. Just look at the Patriots' post-game press conference; coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady looked gutshot, not so much speaking as mumbling in the hushed, inaudible fashion of an oration at a funeral.

It didn't stop there.

The same day that Smith and Dungy went to the top of professional football, Mike Tomlin, the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, was named the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, an ascension if there ever was one. At the age of 34, Tomlin became the 16th coach in the storied franchise’s 74-year history, and its first black head coach, sharing the heady company of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.

“I’m still coming to grips with what that means,” Tomlin told The AP.

Since this happened – since before it happened, really -- there’s been largely unintelligent talk among the blognoscenti that it’s not really such a big deal as all that, a curious willingness to downplay it as a social achievement. “Why are we so insistent that we go on talking about ‘the first black this, the first black that?,” goes the thinking.

And such thoughts suggest something hopeful, almost perversely optimistic: the idea that, among some bloggers at least, the factor of race is in and of itself not enough to explain the complexities of modern American life. For some, it seems, there’s an exhaustion about the issue of race that’s rooted in a kind of existential boredom, rather than connected to the historical emotionalism of arguments on civil rights and discrimination, or even to a basic sense of justice and fair play. There’s just too much else going on.

That starts to be the kind of perspective that black Americans, and others in the American mosaic, have had for years: that our differences need not be differences as much as distinctions.

This is the first athletic win-win situation the country’s had in some time, and probably ever. Oh, the partisans will be there: yahoos from Indianapolis and yahoos from Chicago will turn up in Miami and make that city a bigger spectacle than it already is. And they’ll do what fans from two fiercely loved cities are supposed to do.

But step back, peep the bigger picture. This time, the idea of equality wins – not just the idea of equality but the praxis of equality, the real thing, achieved where everyday people live every day, in the wider culture that defines and explains what we are as a nation.

That’s means we all win: because it proves that we all can win. And that’s grounds for nothing less than hope.
Image credits: Dungy: White House (public domain); Tomlin: SteelCityHobbies, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

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