The timing of this can't be overlooked. The start of Black History Month this year will be punctuated by a historic achievement in sports. For the first time in Super Bowl history, two African-Americans will coach in the Super Bowl.
A friend of mine called me after both conference championship games concluded and jokingly referred to Super Bowl XLI as the "Soul Bowl," proclaiming it a banner day because Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith have proven black coaches belong on the highest stage.
His enthusiasm was understandable, but it shouldn't have taken this for anyone to believe black men were just as qualified as everyone else. But in the many days leading up to the Super Bowl, Smith and Dungy will be a trumpeted as a sign that there has been true racial progress in the NFL and the hotly debated Rooney rule -- which requires teams to interview a minority for a head-coaching opportunity -- is effective on some level.
But real equality shouldn't be measured by Super Bowl appearances. The true measurement of progress is when, across the board, fair opportunities are offered to all -- regardless of race, class or gender.
So the most significant example of racial progress in the NFL wasn't Smith and Dungy, but Mike Tomlin, the 34-year-old black defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings who has been hired as the new coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This is not meant to downplay what Smith and Dungy have achieved. It's an enormous accomplishment, but more so because Smith and Dungy represent the type of dignity and strength that all of us should seek to emulate. Through them, we see that honor and respect are just as important to winning as being stout against the run.
For Tomlin, a relative unknown, to become Pittsburgh's coach shows our tireless conversations and arguments about diversity and fairness finally are getting somewhere.
Tomlin was given the best job a black NFL coach ever has received. He takes over one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports. He has a franchise quarterback, strong ownership and a rabid fan base. Tomlin has everything he needs to succeed.
That support is crucial for any coach, but it's especially poignant here because we're used to seeing black coaches inherit impossible coaching situations that often sabotage their careers. Dungy started with Tampa Bay in 1996, taking over one of the worst franchises in the history of sports. Although the Bucs were under new ownership, they hadn't been to the playoffs since 1982. No one could have predicted Tampa Bay would become a perennial playoff team and Super Bowl winner. And although Dungy didn't win a Super Bowl in Tampa, his success (four playoff seasons in six years) upgraded the Bucs' helm to a premium coaching job.
Historically, those premium jobs have been reserved for white coaches, but Tomlin received the same opportunity Bill Cowher was granted when he become head coach of the Steelers in 1992. Cowher was the same age as Tomlin and Cowher also hadn't been a defensive coordinator for that long (three years). Now that's real equality. Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, who was behind the NFL's minority-interview requirement, deserves a lot of credit because hiring Tomlin demonstrates his commitment to diversity is real.
This is important to highlight because the NFL has, in the past, been blasted for its lack of diversity and opportunity. So if the system appears to be working, there is nothing wrong with saying so.
Hopefully, Smith and Dungy's appearance in the Super Bowl and Tomlin's hire will further embarrass the NCAA. The NFL is kicking the NCAA's tail when it comes to diversity. Since 1996, African-Americans have only filled 11 of the 176 NCAA's Division I-A coaching vacancies, which is pathetic. In a few short years, the NFL may have that many black coaches at one time.
The NFL has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. Art Shell made history as the league's first black coach in 1989. Now the league will have seven black coaches and two will coach in the sport's ultimate game. The significance of a once lily-white league having 22 percent of its teams coached by African-Americans just can't be dismissed.
Of course, the NFL still needs to make strides -- a black owner would be nice -- but the league is making shorter steps than before.
Jemele Hill, a Page 2 columnist and writer for ESPN the Magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.