Sociologists on the Gridiron

December 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NFL has six African American head coaches (and one of them was a sociology major). Six out of 32. In the NCAA’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, there are just nine black head coaches.

The pros are apparently less racist than colleges. And it is racism, not the lack of talented black coaches. Some of those NFL coaches couldn’t even get an interview at the college level. Tony Dungy (African American and a former NFL head coach) isn’t a sociologist, but he has sense of where to look for the racism in the social structure. Not the athletic directors and college presidents who do the hiring. It’s those middle-aged wannabes and jock sniffers waving their pennants at the homecoming game. In a Times op-ed earlier this year, Dungy wrote of his unsuccessful efforts to get colleges to hire black coaches: “Alumni and boosters were involved, and the presidents often felt pressure to hire coaches the boosters would support.”

In the pros, the coach’s job is to win. In the colleges, winning is good thing for a coach to do, but the head coach is also a PR man, a fundraiser. He has to make nice with boosters and alumni, and those people want a coach that they’d feel comfortable hanging out with. Someone who is, you know, more like us.

Dungy repeated this argument on NBC Sunday nigh. (The video, which I cannot embed, is here.) Dungy urged college presidents to show some spine and stand up to the boosters. He also said that the lack of black coaches was “disgraceful.”

The same word might have been applied that night to the Steelers. They lost – at home, yet – to the Raiders forgodssake, blowing the lead twice in the fourth quarter. (Dungy was a defensive back and later an assistant coach for the Steelers.) Whither the Steelers? Superbowl champs just 11 months ago, they have lost four straight. Tonight they play the Browns, who have won one – count ’em one – game this season. Maybe, just maybe, the Steelers can win.

(Update: Several weeks ago, under a photo of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger I added a caption to the effect that they were discussing sociology. Ridiculous, I know. Ben was not a sociology major.

But two weeks ago, with Ben concussed and backup QB Charlie Batch out with a broken wrist, the Steelers went with Dennis Dixon, who in fact was a sociology major and academic all-American at Oregon.

Dixon, whose NFL experience had consisted of throwing two passes, exceeded expectations and even ran 20 yards for a touchdown, and the Steelers took the favored Ravens into overtime. Unfortunately, in the overtime, Dixon misread the defensive pass coverage and threw an interception that cost the Steelers the game.

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