Wednesday, February 07, 2007

acknowledge me

say, baby, what u waitin' on?

when tony dungy and lovie smith posed for pictures with the lombardi trophy last week, they became the first opposing coaches in nfl history to do so. this is a lesser known "first," as the fact that smith and dungy are the first and second african americans to lead teams to the united states' biggest secular holiday overshadowed that, and other super bowl factoids i've stored in my brain. the significance of the event was further amplified by the date: the big game was played on the first sunday in february--black history month. both smith and dungy readily and candidly discussed their roles in the history-making during the days leading up to sunday. when you think about it, however, though dungy and smith may be firsts, they are also lasts.

having been born in 1980, i'm sort of on the cusp, or in between several historical moments. my parents were children during the civil rights movement, but i've never known life without national acknowledgement of the king holiday. my grandmother was but fifteen when jackie robinson integrated the major leagues; my grandfather played in the negro leagues. i was twelve when cito gatson became the first african american to lead a team to the world series. in my young nba basketball watching days, i recall k.c. jones pacing the court as head coach of the boston celtics. a fan of the lakers, my allegiance was with "gq" pat riley, and magic johnson. it wasn't until much later that i learned that jones and al attles were the first african american coaches to face each other in the nba finals a mere five years before my birth. with jones' courtside presence in the 1980s, i'm sure i subconsciously assumed that there had always been black coaches in the nba. with the likes of john thompson and nolan richardson, i never recognized any white out during march madness. i was a freshman at purdue when carolyn peck led the lady boilers to an ncaa women's basketball title.

acknowledge me, don't dog me anymore

in other words, of the three major sports--basketball, baseball, and football--the nfl had been, up until last sunday, a sort of last bastion of white, middle-aged masculinity in the world of athletics. doug williams remains the only black quarterback to have won a super bowl. and, despite eddie robinson's greatness, an african american coach has yet to win an ncaa division 1 championship. it is not surprising to me, then, that football--that is, the touchdown version,--is colloquially known as "america's game."

let's return to america's past time. it's no secret that jackie robinson wasn't the best player the negro leagues had to "offer" the major leagues. i imagine that senator joe biden might describe dungy and smith, as "mainstream...articulate and bright and clean...nice-looking guy[s]." and the super bowl ending? "that's a storybook, man." neither dungy nor smith rub me as joe brown types. though in no way scripted, the story of super bowl xli is reminiscent of tales of integrations past. rosa parks was not the first choice for challenging the montgomery bus system. claudette colvin refused to give up her seat nine months before parks. but 15, unwed, pregnant, and poor, colvin was not considered the wisest test case at the time; so she remains a mere footnote in american history. obviously, there are no "test cases" when it comes to professional football. my point here is that challenges of democracy, scripted or not, in or outside the arena, sometimes follow a similar trajectory.

that digression aside, the fact that football was the last sport to have this sort of first, makes the term "america's game" most apposite. i never heard any mention of this during the weeks before the super bowl, and that doesn't surprise me, either. the jackie robinson event notwithstanding, the gradiosity of the super bowl spectacle makes those other firsts seem trivial. similarly, when we examine the more earth-shattering events that have shaped the fight for racial tolerance and acceptance, we are reminded that not only were these happenings not isolated events (but part of a broader project), but that there were other, similar moments that--for whatever reason--did not capture our sustained attention. the united states has been notoriously slow in allowing all of its citizens to participate in and reap the benefits of democracy; the game we love so much, then, would not be any different.

i was here in the beginning and i'll be here 4ever more.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison