Wiley: Let us be wary of celebrating too much

Updated: February 28, 2007, 10:50 PM ET
By Cole Wiley | Special to ESPN.com

As Black History Month comes to a close, there are many reasons for black people, and all Americans, to reflect on this month of celebration. And we know how Americans love to celebrate -- Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, winning the pennant. Often times, we find ways celebrate for no reason at all.

Remembering that this has been the time of the year when we recognize accomplishments that are definitively black, our opportunities to celebrate have been far from lacking.

Tony Dungy, left, and Lovie Smith
Al Messerschmidt/WireImage.comTony Dungy (left) and Lovie Smith became the first two black head coaches in the NFL to lead their teams to the Super Bowl.

At the beginning of the month, we celebrated when Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith and Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy became the first two black head coaches in the NFL to lead their teams to the Super Bowl -- and Dungy became the first black coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. We celebrated Tiger Woods' continued dominance on the PGA Tour, even though his impressive streak of seven consecutive PGA tournament victories ended. We celebrated when Barack Obama announced he would run for president in 2008, mainly because he is the most promising presidential candidate of any color this country has seen in some time -- although some of us feel the notable achievement will come when he is elected. We celebrated the groundbreaking of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. We celebrated Forest Whitaker winning the Oscar for best actor in "The Last King of Scotland" and Jennifer Hudson winning the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in "Dreamgirls," the most celebrated Hollywood musical with an all-black cast since "Carmen Jones."

Despite the competition, it's a no-brainer to figure that the most notable black achievement of 2007 comes from Dungy and Smith's historic appearance in the game of all games. Their gridiron battle was a prominent milestone in the history of black coaches in the NFL, but it is important to remember that their success was not attained in one night. Their hard work and the efforts of those who came before them were not encapsulated on the night of the Super Bowl. That was merely the celebration.

Black History Month often becomes a time when forgotten heroes are remembered, and an underappreciated history is reclaimed. This type of reflection ought to happen all the time, but I guess we ought to work with what we've got. So, in honor of Black History Month, let us not forget that Dungy and Smith reached the pinnacle of their sport not only through their own efforts, but because of the efforts of many people who preceded and struggled with them.

AP PhotoFritz Pollard, shown in 1975, was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 2005.

The members of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group promoting diversity and equal opportunity, have toiled. Pollard, the first black coach in the NFL, coached several NFL teams until the league made the unfortunate decision to oust all black players and coaches from its ranks in 1926. Pollard toiled long before Dungy and Smith were born. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., famous for attaining an acquittal for Orenthal James Simpson, played a major role in affecting the prevalence of black coaches in the NFL with his 2002 release of "Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performances, Inferior Opportunities." Dungy already had his job in Indianapolis by the time Cochran's report and the subsequent Rooney Rule were taken into consideration by the NFL, but Smith very well might have benefited from the efforts of a lawyer.

These figures played a part in giving us all reason to celebrate, but they are not the only ones. Let us celebrate everyone who fought to end the Jim Crow south, integrate schools across the country, promote equal opportunity in all areas of the professional realm and teach us the value of tolerance in advancing everyone's self-interest. All of us should praise the day when the Rooney Rule is replaced by the Dungy-Smith Rule, a.k.a. the Rule of Common Sense. That is what the struggle is all about.

All of this should remind us that we should at least be a little bit weary of celebrating too much. We can be conscious of our achievements and aware of our progress, but we should never stop working. Frederick Douglass once said that "America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future." Maybe that is because we are all too busy celebrating and not spending enough time working and examining. The magnificent accomplishments and celebrations are merely the snapshots of what our lives are really all about. Our lives are about the process, about the journey, about the progress. The momentous occasions are passing and fleeting.

Cole Wiley
Cole Wiley, son of the late ESPN.com columnist Ralph H. Wiley Jr., is a freelance author, filmmaker and the president and CEO of Heygood Images Productions, Inc. He is a student at Harvard Law School and a columnist at HOFMag.com.


Ralph Wiley's Page 2 archive

Ralph Wiley

ESPN Books collection of Ralph Wiley essays (from Amazon):

What can we really learn from the "all black" Super Bowl? I can't think of much other than the fact that the Colts are a better team than the Bears. But, we surely can learn a lot from the men who have been assiduously working before, during and after the grand occasion. Dungy and Smith are tireless workers who understand what the literal game of football and the figurative game of life are all about. The point of it all is not to reach the summit and proclaim your greatness. It is about walking back down the mountain only to make the climb all over again.

I can recognize these qualities in two men that I have never met, but the Bears still don't have the sense to give Smith the contract he deserves. I don't think that is on account of race, it is on account of stupidity. Anyone who strives for progress in themselves, progress in their team, progress in their community and most importantly for progress in the human condition should not be denied the things they have earned. That wouldn't leave us with much of a reason to work, much less a reason to celebrate, at all.