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Historic Superbowl Shatters Racial Barrier in America

The Superbowl is not only the championship final of the National Football League in the United States, it is also the country's most watched sporting event of the year. This year, history was made when Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts became the first African-American coach to win the big game. There was never any doubt this racial barrier would be broken because -- also for the first time -- the head coaches from both teams were African-Americans. VOA's Brian Padden reports on the significance of this historic achievement beyond the world of sports.

Beyond the thrill of victory for Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy...

Beyond the agony of defeat for Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith...

They are both now part of history. They are the first African-American coaches to reach the Superbowl. And Tony Dungy is the first African-American coach to win it.

"The Lord gave me the opportunity, Lovie and I, and we're able to take advantage of it,” said Dungy after the game. “But we're certainly not the best, certainly not the most qualified, and I know there are some other guys that could have done it, given the chance. So, I just felt good that I was the first one to be able to do it and kind of represent those guys that paved the way for me."

This is progress in a country where major professional sports were segregated along racial lines until 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Civil rights advocates say sports figures such as Robinson and boxer Mohammad Ali long ago proved that African-American athletes can compete with anyone on the field of play.

In fact, this year 70 percent of the players in the National Football League were black. But the coaches in American football today are still predominately white. Last year only 22 percent of the coaches in the NFL were African-American.

To address this discrepancy the league in 2003 instituted a new rule requiring owners to interview minority candidates for all head coaching jobs. Both Lovey Smith and Tony Dungy say they benefited from this rule. They also benefited from participating in a profession that cares only about winning, says race relations expert Michael Wenger with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"Owners of sports teams want, have come to the point of wanting, whoever it is can make them a winning team. So in that sense it is probably easier than other institutions in society," said Wenger.

At the historically black Howard University in Washington D.C., political science professor Alvin Thornton says the important example that Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are setting is one of leadership.

"They are part of the management, the intellectual brain trust of these teams. And so clearly, not that it had to be, but these guys have dispelled the notion that the only contribution that a black male can make in this sense is to run the football, is to catch the football."

And professor Thornton says he hopes that young African-American men who emulate great sports athletes will see these thinkers and leaders as role models.