The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did not say a whole lot about the National Football League in the 1960s, given his preoccupations with the minor details of voting rights, segregation, lynchings, education, and, every now and then, a riot. So that leaves it open to speculation what he would think about the sight that is about to unfold on the weekend of what would have been his 76th birthday.
Of the eight teams still alive for the Super Bowl of the National Football League, five of them -- the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, and the Indianapolis Colts -- have an African-American head coach or an African-American starting quarterback. This is the most teams in the history of the game this late in the playoffs to have black men at the helm -- either on the sideline or on the field. It is at once a moment of progress and the continuation of a pernicious stereotype.
Of all 32 teams in the 2004 season, five have African-American head coaches and six consistently started African-American quarterbacks, a total of 11 leaders. Nearly half of them are still alive for a championship ring. When 40 percent of the black head coaches in the NFL have gotten this far, compared to 22 percent of the white coaches, and when 50 percent of the starting black quarterbacks are in the hunt, compared to 19 percent of the white starters, it is a hint that African-Americans literally still have to be twice as good to get where we get -- even in sports.
Many white Americans are destroying affirmative action by saying we should not guarantee results for people of color. Going by the above, black people can't get these jobs unless we all but guarantee the results for white owners and their predominantly white fans.
But King might have made this more than a simple attack on racism. He might have also invoked black responsibility. On the surface, he would have marveled at the presence of so many black leaders in the playoffs. In a 1961 speech, in which he focused on the idea that "we must not use our oppression as an excuse for mediocrity and laziness," he cited several athletes. "There were stars in the athletic sky," King said. "Then came Joe Louis with his educated fists, Jesse Owens with his fleet and dashing feet, Jackie Robinson with his powerful bat and spirit. All of these people have come to remind us that we need not wait until the day of full emancipation . . . if we are to implement the American dream, we must continue to engage in creative protest in order to break down all of those barriers that make it impossible for the dream to be realized."
On deeper speculation, King might have marveled in particular over Robinson because Robinson embodied the "creative protest" off the field as well. Robinson used his fame as the first African-American to be allowed to play big-league white baseball to join the civil rights movement. He pushed for black advances in education and business. He was with King enough to be tagged by the Secret Service as a "black nationalist." A Rockefeller Republican, Robinson was not afraid to criticize the purge of black delegates at the 1964 party convention by supporters of Barry Goldwater. After seeing black delegates being spat upon, shoved, and called racial slurs, Robinson said famously, "I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."
Today's black stars in the athletic sky are more creative on the field than ever, but more invisible than ever off it. They have all but ceased to be economic or political factors when they are needed every bit as much as in Robinson's time. As the stars juke for touchdowns and jiggle in television commercials -- often for obesity-promoting junk foods -- huge swaths of black boys who can never realistically aspire to be sports heroes are being purged from the road to equality through this nation's miserly support of public education.
Whether the source is discouragement from educators or dysfunctional families, black boys disproportionately pour their intellect into sports at very young ages. This system might produce a Daunte Culpepper, but along the way it might have destroyed 10,000 other black boys who would have been better off aspiring to be Culpepper's accountants.
Robinson would have called out that system. He saw life clearly enough to know how it felt to be a Jew under Nazism. Today's black athletes are even more successful in salary and are even getting credit for their intellect on the field. It is unclear if they know any more how it feels to be black in America.
© 2005 Boston Globe