Anti-Tomlin, 2016 Version: Part 2
by Ivan Cole
[Editor’s note: in Part 1 Ivan made the case that the anti-Tomlin rhetoric has gotten more subtle as the narrative is more difficult to sustain in the face of the evidence. Here’s Ivan’s theory as to why it continues anyhow.]
So maybe it’s time to broach the subject of the ‘R’ word. I stated earlier that Cowherd’s insinuations were insulting to all involved. The topic we haven’t upon touched yet is the organization and the culture that has allegedly coddled and protected its head coach. Left unexplained is how such a first class operation could make an error in discernment concerning, arguably, the most important and impactful decision affecting the success of the organizational mission, and then compound it by not acknowledging it and making corrections.
The two most obvious answers would be that the Rooneys, blinded by ‘liberal’ ideology (such as their own Rooney Rule) and naiveté, chose a flawed and limited man, and are now ensnared by public relations and other concerns to stick it out unless and until such time that he either can be trained to function at a more acceptable level, or fails in a clear cut enough fashion that he can be disposed of without controversy. Or they went into this eyes open, intent upon engaging in a social engineering experiment and, based on the low expectations that such an action would imply, believe it is actually going rather well at the moment.
It is at this point that the interjection of the topic of racism can no longer be avoided. The problem we are faced with in this particular period of our social history is that we are now vacillating between two extremes; a promiscuous labeling of everything being racist, or a denial that such a thing exists at all. In this case I believe it is irresponsible to scurry around this particular elephant in the room.
There are elements in Cowherd’s professional history, as well as certain in his arguments that point us precisely in that direction. Also there is the matter of a general misreading of how racism actually manifests, particularly in professional football, that obscures how many of us perceive things. Finally, racism actually brings a kind of backhanded logic and credibility to a set of arguments that are, otherwise, sloppy and not a little absurd.
There is plenty of precedence in this regard. Several years ago, The World Leader in its infinite wisdom thought it would be a wonderful idea to add Rush Limbaugh to its NFL Countdown team. Limbaugh began immediately pushing a line that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was an overrated affirmative action baby. That went over well. Cowherd has been a figure of controversy based upon statements he has made about the late Sean Taylor and Latin American baseball players that resulted in his being suspended by a previous employer (the aforementioned World Leader).
His mindset is somewhat typical of a particular type of critic who because of the so-called political correctness of the 21st Century cannot be more forthright in their observations. My suspicion is that a more integral approach would be to declare that Tomlin doesn’t know his place, either not being a head coach at all, or if so, having a more deferential posture. Take your pick. This is where the lack of understanding of racism confuses things. We usually want to associate it with hatred and bigotry, but that is just one manifestation of the more universal dynamic; contempt.
If you think about it, there is some difficulty following football, and particularly the Steelers at all, if you absolutely despised people of color. Out of 22 offensive and defensive starters only three or four (depending how you categorize Alejandro Villanueva) are not People of color. And that number goes down when Ladarius Green comes off the PUP list. Imagine following the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League if you hate white people. There’s Trevor Daley, and then what?
If you want to talk progress then we can celebrate the fact that blunt force, in your face racial bigotry is in retreat to the point that even avowed white supremacists are somewhat reluctant to express it in mixed company. That still leaves what I would label the weasel aspect of the various ‘isms’; the demand for impeccability. Recently, the Democratic nominee for President was criticized because she didn’t smile enough. Really? Deference. Having a congeniality bar to hurdle that male candidates do not. Not knowing your place.
This has been a very old struggle for the elite black athlete in particular. The history of the league reflects this. Paul Brown served as the Branch Rickey of professional football, integrating the Browns a year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since then it has been an unending struggle to expand the sense of ‘place’.
Noll, a Brown disciple, insisted that the roster designations for white and black players be eliminated, and along with that the quota system that it represented. A few years later the Steelers made national news (not sports) headlines when they announced that their starting quarterback for the 1974 season would be Joe Gilliam, who was black. Hard to believe for some, but it has only been 30 years or so since a black player could confidently believe that he could compete for any position on a NFL roster. Black head coaches only began to appear in the last 25 years. General managers later than that, and in spite of the best efforts of those like the late Walter Peyton, ownership is a barrier that has yet to be breached.
Tomlin’s hiring was not groundbreaking in the gross, revolutionary sense, but representative of a subtler evolution. He was high on potential but relatively low on history. The pioneer class in any group tends to skew to the overqualified to compensate for the perception that the color or gender of their body renders them incompetent.
The Rooney family broke with this conservative approach. The reaction should have been predictable. The affirmative action trope is really just a politically correct dog whistle/code word for an accusation against people who are out of their place, and therefore by definition unqualified.
And these were the people who gave us the Rooney Rule, remember. However, as has been pointed out by others, the Rooney Rule requirements had already been satisfied before Tomlin was vetted when the team interviewed Ron Rivera, currently coach of the Carolina Panthers. The Tomlin hire essentially followed the pattern of their remarkably infrequent head coach selections; a young, talented, relatively unknown defensive assistant from outside the organization. In addition, as a disciple of Tony Dungy, Tomlin is actually an offshoot of the Chuck Noll coaching tree. But for some, none of this would be enough. He would have to be faultless as well.
So there is a narrative applied to Tomlin alone which, if it is credible, ought to be universally applied. Specifically, that a coach is evaluated based in a major way upon the resources he or she inherits, as opposed to how those resources are leveraged, regardless of the quality. If considered seriously, across the board, we could begin with Cowher getting to Super Bowl 30 thanks to Chuck Noll’s players. And this would be a godsend for all struggling and failing coaches who could declare that the fault lies in their inheritance, not their abilities.
Additionally, Tomlin compounds his offense by being insufficiently deferential, an issue that is at the fore of current events involving players across the league. While he is not as defiant as a Muhammed Ali, he’s no Joe Louis either. He has the nerve to act like he has actually earned the right to be where he is, as though he belongs. At nearly every press conference he will remind you that he doesn’t suffer fools, a quality he shares with Noll. And treats the field hands like men instead of mules. Some consciously, others unconsciously find that unacceptable.
Beyond certain particulars this is a very old, fundamental battle. The idea that one proves their humanity by exhibiting flawless behavior is breathtakingly oxymoronic. As is the notion that said humanity is subject to ratification by other humans. But that is the essence of it. Jackie Robinson’s selection to be the first to integrate Major League Baseball was predicated as much on his capacity to take on a particular persona as was his abilities on the field of play. He was to be humble, grateful and graceful in the face of a great deal of disrespect and human ugliness. The fail comes in that the power and morality of humility is in it being an internally generated choice. Once it becomes a response to an external demand, a condition of employment and acceptance, then the individual is no longer humble, but rather servile, which is a different matter altogether. That would be, according to the dictionary, the behavior of, ahem, a slave.
For younger readers, you can be forgiven if you didn’t quite get this point in all the recent tributes to Muhammed Ali. His, and others such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jim Brown making the break from the requirement of black athletes acting in a servile manner in order to court acceptance is the central issue of his career, a stance which Robinson would endorse as well. And make no mistake. At the time he was absolutely despised by wide swaths of the American public (of all colors, it should be mentioned) for doing so. He, like Martin Luther King Jr. and others were only ‘beloved’ much later.
Here is the connecting thread to many of our contentious conversations of the moment. Are we actually involved in a debate to establish a behavioral bar to determine whether executions over minor and trivial civil offenses are, if not justified, understandable? One misses the point if you don’t get that the backlash to the backlash over Colin Kaepernick is not about flags or patriotism, but to the outrageous notion that one capitulates their humanity if they possess minor human flaws (the subject of his protest) or the rights of citizenship if there is enough money involved (his right to protest).
This gives a peek, by the way, of deeper issues of self-worth that go well beyond even racism that will have to be explored if there is any seriousness about healing the nation.
Getting back to Tomlin. Of the nearly 500 or so individuals who have had the mantle of being a head NFL coach, only about 10 percent have survived to serve a decade or more. Smaller still are those who have done so without ever experiencing a losing season. Four franchises have never been to a Super Bowl. Eight have only made it there once. Thirteen have never won a Lombardi. Tomlin has delivered two appearances and one championship before his 40th birthday.
His most appropriate and worthy peers in terms of accomplishments are between twenty and thirty years his senior in age and have double his head coaching experience. And yet there is a debate going on as to whether he is a good coach.
Let’s be clear. No one is requesting that you like the man. I, like many of you, don’t particularly like Belichick. But don’t get it confused. Even ethically challenged, he’s a great coach. That has to be conceded.
Most likely there will come a time where Tomlin, like Ali, will be not only respected, but be greatly admired by those who current have ‘concerns’. But don’t count on seeing it soon, regardless of how well his teams do.