There has always been an intimate if not tortured relationship between African Americans and American sports. On the one hand stereotypes and economic oppression have often led to African Americans believing that professional sports were the best or only option to financial success. On the other hand athletic success has given many African Americans a stage to speak out against institutional racism, as well as blaze a path for many other African Americans both within and outside of sports.
Nowhere are these two concepts on more obvious display than in the Super Bowl, the single largest annual sporting event in America. From the players on the field to the coaches and executives behind the scenes, the Super Bowl has really become an interesting measuring stick for the progress of Black Americans over the years. This is made all the more significant by the fact that due to schedule changes the big game has occurred during Black History Month for the last decade. So in honor of the month, and the impending destruction of the New York Giants at the hand of the Patriots (sorry had to throw that in) we present the Top 6 Most Important Super Bowls in Black History Month.
Super Bowl XXXVI (36) New England Patriots over St. Louis Rams 20-17, Feburary 3rd 2002
This Super Bowl began the long and storied run of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s football empire of the Patriots, but it was also the start of some truly significant advancements for African Americans in the world of NFL coaching. Romeo Crennel, the defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots and Lovie Smith the Defensive Coordinator for the St. Louis Rams were both hired as head coaches within a few years after this Super Bowl. More importantly Super Bowl 36 was the first time in Super Bowl / Black History month history that two teams were led by African American defensive coordinators. While Crennel’s Patriots got the best of Lovie’s Rams in the game, Lovie got the last laugh. He was named head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2004 and has led that team to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship game while Romeo has coached the lousy Cleveland Browns and now Kansas City Chiefs.
Super Bowl XXXVIII (38) New England Patriots over the Carolina Panthers (32 – 29) Feburary 1st 2004
You can pretty much forget about the actual GAME between the Pats and the Panthers, it was fairly boring until the second half. Perhaps the second half play was inspired by what turned out to be the sauciest, most infamous half-time show in Super Bowl/Black History month history. Yes, this was the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake Super Bowl which sparked federal-level controversy and a great deal of discussion, hand-wringing and finger pointing in Black intellectucal circles. Unless you were hiding in a hole with Saddam Hussein at the time, you probably heard that the two pop stars performed the hit song “Rock Your Body” during the Super Bowl halftime show. The song ends with the lyric “Imma have you naked by the end of this song” and right on cue Justin tears off part of Janet’s top (5:20 mark) revealing her right breast to millions of fans across the world.
Thousands of people called the FCC to complain, it was the most TIVO’d moment in the history of television and the anger on the part of the NFL and some fans was so loud and intense that Justin and Janet immediately went into spin mode. Nobody bought their story that it was a ‘wardrobe malfunction’, but even if it was, African American cultural critics were still justifiably furious. The fact that Janet Jackson, a Black woman with a long and globally successful career as a clean pop icon, was blamed in the press for the incident more than Justin Timberlake, who had actually TORN off her top (intentionally or not) was a jarring reminder of the pervasiveness of racist stereotypes about Black women that no amount of hit albums or charity work could counter. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Justin had been playing up his street cred and jungle fever rep with Janet for almost a year, then completely hung her out to dry in the press, claiming that he was ‘appalled by what happened’ but taking no responsibility. Janet took the fall, covered for Justin and 8 years later he’s still a star and Janet is doing Nutrisystem commercials. If this had occurred in reverse, and let’s say Usher had torn off Madonna’s top, he’d have been branded a rapist and they probably would have strung him up on stage.
Super Bowl XXXVIIII (39) New England Patriots over Philadelphia Eagles (24- 21) February 6th, 2005
This was a particularly painful Super Bowl for me, since I’m an Eagles fan and Donovan McNabb is my favorite player, but I can objectively say that as a Black history month Super Bowl it was pretty impressive. First, Donovan McNabb is only the 3rd African American quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, and despite inept coaching by Andy Reid, a swiss cheese offensive line, no running game and his own famous time gobbling screw up in the 4th quarter he did make some history. McNabb finished the game with 30 completions for 357 yards the third most in Super Bowl History (at the time) in both categories. Moreover Super Bowl 39 remains the only Super Bowl in history to be tied at both half-time and the start of the 4th quarter.
An entire treatise can be written about Donovan McNabb and his role as a prism through which race in America can be viewed. His strength in the face of a notoriously hostile and occasionally racist Philadelphia fan base and media, being attacked by Rush Limbaugh, and being embroiled in a disgusting “Good Black vs. Bad Black” battle with the coonish and easily manipulated Terrell Owens all come to mind. But in the end, this game was the career peak of perhaps the most successful African American quarterback in NFL history and he played Tom Brady and the Patriots closer than anyone else, and for that he deserves some credit.
Super Bowl XLI (41) Indianapolis Colts over Chicago Bears (29-17) Feburary 4th, 2007
The Black History month significance of this Super Bowl is obvious, Tony Dungy leading the Colts and Lovie Smith leading the Bears it was the first time in the history of the NFL that two Black Coaches met in a Super Bowl. In fact, it was the first time in NFL history that ANY Black coach had taken their team to a Super Bowl. More importantly after the Colts won, Tony Dungy became the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl, and finally bring credibility to a previously underachieving Peyton Manning.
There was a deeper meaning to this victory though for African Americans: Lovie Smith was a coach off of Dungy’s ‘coaching tree’ just a few years earlier, and the idea of these two men meeting in the Super Bowl after a relatively short time in head coaching helped cement the value of the Rooney Rule, which required NFL teams to interview minority head coaching candidates whenever there was a vacancy.
Super Bowl XLII (42) New York Giants over New England Patriots (17 – 14) Feburary 3rd 2008
One of the best things about the NFL in regards to Black History is the fact that the game showcases the skills and advancements both on and off the field. This Super Bowl was a classic example. Despite two of the ‘Whitest’ teams in the Super Bowl Black History Month era, two African American men played historic roles in the game. First you had Mike Carey, the first African American referee to be in a Super Bowl. Carey was ranked #2 on a recent ESPN list of best refs in the league (no small feat) and perhaps more importantly (or painfully depending on who you root for) Carey was credited with one of the most important “no-calls” in Super Bowl History. Rather than anticipate a sack, Carey allowed play to continue on the infamous 4th quarter drive where Eli Manning did THIS, and beat the Patriots in the biggest upset since the Pats beat the Rams in 2002. It still pains me to write that. Second, behind the scenes you had Jerry Reese, General manager of the New York Giants and only the 3rd African American general manager in NFL history, who of course became the first Black GM to win a Super Bowl with this victory and with today’s game against the Pats he becomes one of the few GMs of any color in the NFL to take their team to the Super Bowl twice.
Super Bowl XLIII (43) Pittsburgh Steelers over Arizona Cardinals (27-23) Februbary 1st 2009
Super Bowl 43 probably had the best ending in Super Bowl History, as well as some seminal Black history to enjoy. It was the first time in history that a former cast member from “House” coached a team to a Super Bowl victory. In winning that Super Bowl Mike Tomlin became the youngest head coach EVER to win a Super Bowl. He remains the fourth youngest coach in any of the four major American sports, and with his second Super Bowl appearance (even though it was a loss) to the Green Bay Packers Tomlin is all but assured a very long tenure in Pittsburgh, ironically the team that invented the Rooney Rule.
So while you load up on pizza and soda for the kick-off this Sunday there is no need to feel any cultural guilt. The Super Bowl is a wonderful way to celebrate Black History month. If it makes you feel more militant you can think about the fact that you’re watching a sport where the majority Black labor force was locked-out into submission last fall. Of course I won’t let that ruin my popcorn throwing and pizza eating!