A brother's fate on NFL plantation

January 30, 2000|By Derrick Z. Jackson

FOR THREE WEEKS football friends have barged into my office with Molotov cocktails in their eyes or left incendiary messages on voice mail. My buddy Herb threw up his hands so violently as we watched a game that I could not tell if he was gesticulating for emphasis or signaling for a Heimlich to cough up his barbecue ribs. Assuming that I was in an apocalyptic misery, they said:

"That was cold what they did to your boy."

"Your boys sure didn't give the brother any time, did they?"

"We have to do something about that Packers management."

"Dag man, one year?"

"It's an outrage! Injustice! They didn't give him a chance."

"You know a white guy would have gotten more than a year to put his system in."

I listened as all patient reporters do. When they were done, I issued my response. It has been the same for three weeks.

"I was glad the brother was hired. I was glad the brother was fired."

The "brother" is Ray Rhodes, who was fired recently as head coach of the Green Bay Packers after just one season, after his team missed the National Football League playoffs with an 8-8 record. The team had made the playoffs the last six years under former head coach Mike Holmgren.

It takes no Rhodes scholar to judge this situation. This is not Cleveland or New Orleans, where 8-8 gets ticker tape. This is Green Bay, only two years removed from two consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

There was a complication. Mr. Rhodes is African-American. His firing dropped the number of black head coaches from three to two in a 31-team league.

In general, the NFL is rife with antebellum, institutional racism as 70 percent of the players are African-Americans but only 29 percent of assistant coaches and 10 percent of head coaches are. Most coaches are former players at some level.

The firing drew a letter to the Packers from Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Jackson aide Charles Farrell called African-American coaches an "endangered species." Farrell asked if a white coach would have been fired after one year at 8-8. He asked, "Are black coaches being held to a different standard?"

In general, yes. In Mr. Rhodes' case, no way. Sure, white coaches get more time to sink ships.

The recently fired Pete Carroll got three years to drive the New England Patriots from the Super Bowl to an 8-8 record and out of the playoffs. Recently fired Chan Gailey got two years to lower the Dallas Cowboys from contenders into 8-8 pretenders. No white coach immediately comes to mind who was fired after one season with an 8-8 record or better.

But I am not your garden-variety observer of race relations. I am a native Wisconsinite, a Packer fan, and so serious about my team that my wife made a bet that if my 9-year-old son Tano and I can keep his bedroom and my home office clean for the next six months, we can fly to any Packer game in the country next season.

When I plunk my money down for two plane tickets, I am colorblind. They better win. The Packers were 13-3, 13-3, and 11-5 the last three seasons. But this year, after a 3-1 start with miracle comebacks engineered by star quarterback Brett Favre, the team collapsed.

My contortions and chiropractic bills soared as the Packers lost five of eight road games and lost games at home twice on the last play, once on a blocked field goal and once by letting a quarterback as stiff as Al Gore run for a touchdown.

It was so bad that my son, after yet another blown tackle to allow a score, said, "Daddy, it's like the Packers see the runner coming and they all get out of the way like he's got dynamite."

Jesse Jackson should ride herd on the rest of the NFL. No African-Americans have been seriously considered for any of this year's head coaching openings, including the Patriots', who for weeks have been absurdly locked in on a checkered white candidate, Bill Belichick.

But do not blame the Packers. Playing in the NFL's smallest, whitest city, Green Bay this season became the first team in league history to put African-Americans in the three top posts -- head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator. The Packers were also the first team to recycle an African-American coach, taking a chance on Mr. Rhodes after he was fired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mr. Rhodes knew that being handed a dynamite team was a golden opportunity with a short fuse. "The seat is going to be hot," he said a year ago. The dynamite exploded in his face and his seat went up in flames as the team lost three of its last four games and missed the playoffs.

So while the NFL is still a plantation, Mr. Rhodes is not a poster child for it. He was hired this week as defensive coordinator in Washington. Sherman Lewis, the fired Packers offensive coordinator, was hired this week for the same job by Minnesota. These brothers still have good jobs on playoff teams. It is how the NFL should work; it just needs far more of it.

If one wants to insist Mr. Rhodes got a quick hook, go ahead. My son and I have other priorities, like cleaning our house, stuffing cheeseheads into our suitcases and flying to a warm city next season to scream, "Go Pack, Go." I was glad to see the brother get hired. I was glad to see the brother get fired.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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