Commercial recalls old tensions for NFL

The groans in the room were nearly unanimous.

About 50 students in the Saybrook College TV room had just seen a lackluster commercial during Super Bowl XLI. While the consensus was that this year’s commercials paled in comparison to last year’s, one commercial was notable for a different reason. This one, the “Coca-Cola Black History Timeline,” was more than inappropriate — it was disrespectful and misleading.

The commercial featured a series of dates in which black individuals broke color barriers, accompanied by a Coke bottle whose style changed with the years. The commercial documented the first black man to reach the North Pole in 1909, the bravery of the Tuskegee pilots in 1941, Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus in 1955, and Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and ended with a screen titled “Especially Today,” meant to recognize the first and second black head coaches to compete in the Super Bowl.

Coca-Cola’s commercial was troubling for a number of reasons. First, by skipping the period from 1963 to 2007, it implied that nothing notable has occurred in black history in the intervening years. I realize that 30 seconds is not a lot of time, but I might have included the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice, and maybe something about Oprah, but that’s just me. Second, the commercial suggests that Coca-Cola had a hand in these momentous events, and therefore we should drink Coke. Coca-Cola, which has some pending human rights issues to resolve with regard to the torture and murder of union leaders in Colombia, seems an unlikely candidate to tout its fair treatment of minorities. It might have been wiser for Coca-Cola to sit out another year before returning to the Super Bowl commercial scene after an eight-year hiatus.

Super Bowl commercials have, of course, become as celebrated as the game itself. According to the Wall Street Journal, 90 million viewers tuned into the event, helping to explain why the broadcasters could charge $2.6 million per 30-second slot. With that kind of money, you could understand why Coca-Cola would want to produce an ad that would generate money. There is a lot on the line with each commercial — who could forget Budweiser’s famous “Whassup?” commercials from 2000 — and no doubt this one went through layers of screening and testing before it reached our screens. Yet somehow, using strained race relations as a selling point did not sit right.

The real problem with Coca-Cola’s commercial is that it exploited a disturbing past of racism and segregation in our country and, more particularly, in the National Football League. By suggesting that the presence of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith in the big game was a racial exception rather than an athletic accomplishment, it drew attention away from the singular achievements of these two men as coaches. It ignored the fact that racism in the league prevented black individuals from becoming football coaches — let alone a coach in the Super Bowl — in the first place. More to the point, the commercial seemed to make the game about race when, on Sunday, it should have been about football.

Coca-Cola’s commercial was emblematic of a revisionist stance toward racism that surrounds the NFL on the whole. Blacks have been playing in the NFL since the late 1940s, making up 30 percent of the league by the 1970s. Today, according to Wikipedia, 69 percent are of color, which includes all nonwhites. And yet, only seven of the NFL’s 32 teams have black head coaches. Moreover, white quarterbacks still outnumber black quarterbacks. Many, including Vince Lombardi in his autobiography, attribute this to coaching behavior that encourages black players to play “speed” positions like defensive back and whites to play “intelligent” positions like quarterback and center. Racism is still a phenomenon in the NFL, making Coca-Cola’s commercial and some of the dopey, self-congratulatory comments offered by the announcers seem out of line. Four of the last five Super Bowls have occurred during Black History Month; where was the mention of race then? Moreover, what will the announcers say when the third black coach reaches the Super Bowl?

A more respectful way to have handled the occasion of two black coaches in the Super Bowl would have been a limited ceremony at the beginning of the game that acknowledged both the progress the NFL has made toward achieving racial equality and the long road still ahead. Instead of honoring just Dungy and Smith, it should have commemorated previous black players and coaches who had to overcome racial discrimination but who were not fortunate enough to make the big game. Many bodies and organizations have a history of racism, but their members have made public strides to recognize these transgressions and move forward. Somehow, allowing Coca-Cola to profit from the league’s unflattering history is not what most in the Saybrook College TV room had in mind, especially on Super Bowl Sunday.

Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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