Monday, January 18, 2010

Sports, MLK, JR, and the Hiring of Derek Dooley

Late last week, the University of Tennessee hired Derek Dooley as its head football coach. Coach Dooley replaced Lane Kiffin, who left the university to become head football coach at the University of Southern California.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day. And for some strange reason, I cannot stop thinking about the connection between Dr. King and the hiring of Coach Dooley.

Then it hit me.

Too often, we think of sports as a diversion, as a way for us to escape from our everyday problems. When we sit in front of the television to watch our favorite teams, we don't like to think too much about anything. We just like to root for our teams.

But Dr. King knew better. Sports were far more important than that. Not only are sports tremendously powerful both politically and symbolically, but the athletes themselves are influential role models for the youth of the nation. More importantly still, Dr. King understood that the athletic arena was more than a place were sports took place, but an important window to issues of racial justice.

This is probably why the picture of a black player, Terrence Cody, blocking a field goal at the end of the game to preserve an Alabama victory over Tennessee, stayed with me for as long as it did. This is the same state that gave us George Wallace, he of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" fame. The University of Alabama is also the institution where Wallace made his defiant stand against federal troops and racial integration. To see a black player lead Wallace's old university to victory is, to put it bluntly, jarring.

This is also why I pay close attention every time a football coach is hired and a search begins for his successor. In the National Football League, the so-called "Rooney Rule" requires teams to interview minority candidates during the search process. This rule has led to the hiring of many black coaches since its inception, leading some to question whether the rule is "still relevant." As expected, teams have learned to live with the rule, but also to work around it. It is now commonplace for teams to conduct "sham" interviews, that is, to interview black coaches they have no intention to hire, in order to comply with the rule. This is exactly what happened during the last two searches, by teams in Seattle and Washington D.C.

This brings me back to the hiring of Coach Dooley. Who is he? He happens to be the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley. Prior to his hiring by Tennessee, Derek Dooley coached at Louisiana Tech, where he complied a less-than-stellar record of 17-20. Nothing his record suggests he will be a great coach or a mediocre one. Nothing. Yet the University of Tennessee tagged him to lead the Volunteers for next year and beyond.

This hiring is a great example of the hypocrisy found within the affirmative action debate. Critics of affirmative action argue that decisions should be made on the basis of merit and nothing else. Unfortunately, credentials are only questioned when they involve candidates or applicants of color. Derek Dooley can be hired by a major football program and not a critic is found. Before Dooley, Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin, whose only head coaching experience involved a disastrous tenure coaching the Oakland Raiders. In fact, some commentators have pointed out that Dooley may be a better hire than Kiffin was at the time. How is that for setting a low floor?

Today, major college football boasts only four black head coaches. This is in a sport where, in 2008, 50% of the players in Division I-A, 25% of the assistant football coaches, and 13% percent of the offensive and defensive coordinators were black. A pool exists, in other words, for Athletic Directors to give opportunities to black candidates. Instead, the Kiffins and the Dooleys of the world continue to move forward. `

This is nothing, I suppose, that a good ol' proposition could not cure. If only we could find Ward Connerly when we needed him.

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