The Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears haven't even lined up yet for Super Bowl XLI, but already the backlash over Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith's history-making run has begun.
Who cares that Dungy and Smith are the first African Americans to take their respective teams to the big game? Get over it!
You hear it on radio talk shows, from hosts and listeners alike. You see it on TV, the talking heads telling you that race doesn't matter, as if pointing out skin color and milestones would detract from their talent. It's always been about talent, they say. It's not important to them - those always-color-blind pundits - so why should it be important to you?
Try telling that to the millions of African Americans who will be parked in front of their TVs Sunday just to watch history unfold. It's a matchup dubbed the Soul Bowl, because it's more than a game.
That two African American coaches have finally broken through the race barrier to oppose each other in the world's biggest sporting spectacle represents a tremendous milestone in the continuing struggle for equality in this country. Never mind that it took until 2007. 2007!
But the real story of Dungy and Smith isn't about their being in the Super Bowl. It's about how they got there.
One of the first things Dungy did when he finally landed his first head-coaching job after 16 long years as an assistant was to hire Smith as an assistant in charge of linebackers. Ron Meeks, another African American, is Dungy's defensive coordinator, a position that puts Meeks directly in line for head-coach consideration.
Dungy's list goes on: Herman Edwards, the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back, is now head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Another Dungy disciple, Mike Tomlin, was recently named head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now Smith is doing the same in Chicago. Ron Rivera, a Latino, runs Smith's vaunted defense.
You get the picture? All are coaches with plenty of talent who would not have gotten an opportunity.
Heavyweight champ Larry Holmes once said that reaching the top means nothing if you don't pull someone up with you. That idea takes on crucial importance for people of color, who, despite our progress, still must overcome institutional discrimination and personal bias to even get a chance to prove ourselves.
Sidney Poitier opened the door for Denzel Washington. Marian Anderson paved the way for Leontyne Price and Denyce Graves. Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson begat Venus and Serena Williams. More notable are the scores of unheralded pioneers and role models who mentor and inspire every day without recognition.
I know I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for Oakland Tribune editor Robert C. Maynard, who hired me right out of college as a sportswriter. Maynard, a pioneer for newsroom diversity, saw potential in me that I didn't even see.
When I came aboard, Maynard ordered all the cheesecake posters and calendars off the walls. (Let's face it, a newspaper's testosterone-driven sports department was notoriously sexist circa 1980.) He created a newsroom culture that allowed me not only to produce, but to thrive. Thanks to Maynard, who was the first African American to head a major metropolitan newspaper, I, too, became a "first" - the Trib's first female sports columnist.
Dungy must take supreme satisfaction in knowing that his Super Bowl opponent is not only a good friend but also a former protege.
Individual efforts like Dungy's have done more to diversify the NFL than the Rooney Rule, which says owners are required to interview at least one minority candidate for a vacant head coaching job. Yes, even now, in a league that is 70 percent black, owners still have to be convinced that coaching excellence comes in different colors. The front office, one hopes, is not far behind.
Maybe one day that will change. Until then, we continue to make progress, one "first" at a time, while setting a goal that it won't be the last.
Check out Annette John-Hall's blog at http://go.philly.com/freeflow