Change the Game
Posted by hiphopmama on April 25, 2009
One of my new favorite NBA commentators is Nancy Lieberman. Why should you care? Well, for one thing because she is a qualified, skilled announcer with just enough quirkiness to succeed as a color commentator without getting under your skin. Oh, and one of my new faves among NBA referees – an already sterling bunch – is Violet Palmer. Like most NBA refs, she is damn good at making those necessary snap decisions, getting them right, calling them with attitude, and then taking no guff from the players who inevitably feel wronged by the call. My favorite NFL coach? Tony Dungy, by a long shot. Have you ever seen such a class guy for a head coach, in any sport? For someone so soft-spoken and humble in demeanor, he sure whips his teams into shape and gets the absolute most out of them.
Where am I going with all this? A couple different directions, I suppose. The first is simply the point that some of the best and brightest in our current crop of people affiliated with men’s professional sports are among groups traditionally considered minorities in that arena. When I was growing up, the idea of a woman doing anything official on a basketball court besides cheering was unthinkable. Female sideline reporters eventually made some headway in all the big sports, but never did you see a woman calling the game, either behind the broadcast desk or in the striped shirt. Today, I have witnessed more than one of each, and performing admirably.
Still, I have not seen many more than one, and I could count on one hand the number I’ve been able to enjoy in all of those professions combined, which leads me to my second point: there are not enough of these so-called “minorities” despite the excellent jobs they do. I don’t have access to any concrete evaluative system for referees or game commentators, but coaches give you lots of data to work with.
When Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith faced each other in the Super Bowl in 2007, many different news outlets covered the historic event of two black head coaches appearing in football’s biggest event. What fewer noted was the continued diminished returns seen even since the institution of the “Rooney rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one black coach for an open position. In a league that is approximately 70% black, having seven African American head coaches among the thirty-two teams is not exactly an amazing accomplishment, especially when the NFL likes to pat itself on the back for its progressive hiring. What’s more, black coaches tend to have to perform better than their white peers in order to get and keep these scarce jobs. African American coaches tend to out-perform their white counterparts in virtually every category. They average more wins overall as well as in their first year of coaching. They make the playoffs more often, and once there they win more frequently. Even with all of this, they still are quicker to get fired, averaging better records in their final season before being let go than white coaches in the same situation.
What does all this add up to? It’s a fairly easy conclusion to make, actually, and it is simply this: that we need to do more to incorporate a wider variety of people in all facets of sports. It’s not solely a matter of some abstract notion of fairness, although that is nothing to dismiss out of hand, either. Instead, it should be viewed in terms of what the sport itself, as well as its players and viewers, have to gain should a wider net be cast in filling these high-pressure, high-rewards positions. All the numbers indicate that, when given a chance, these underrepresented groups at the very least perform up to the standards of the typical pool of professionals. And while the Rooney rule is a nice idea, it results in a mere formality that is one step on the road to overlooking potentially qualified candidates for more members of the old boys’ club. Kudos to the NFL for even instituting something of the sort, as no other major sport has a comparable requirement, but more is needed. And that goes for women as well, even in an arena dominated by the Y chromosome.