With a few minutes left to play in the 2015 NFC Championship, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted Arizona’s Carson Palmer for a door-slamming pick six, punctuating the victory with an exclamation point (actually, Palmer threw another interception shortly thereafter, but the game was over long before this). NFL fans watching around the world now realized the inevitable: the Carolina Panthers were going to their second Super Bowl in team history. It had been an incredible turnaround for a team that had struggled in recent memory. They had a near perfect performance in 2015, and became the odds on favorite to win Super Bowl L.
Cam Newton celebrated on the sideline with his teammates. The dashing Superman quarterback, with his million-dollar smile and the league’s MVP award assuredly his, danced and pranced in the wake of a dominant performance. Camera shots of the usually reserved Panthers head coach Ron Rivera revealed the pressure momentarily gone, his willingness to smile and enjoy the moment displayed for everyone to see. Tubs of ice-cold sports drinks rained down on the coach in victory. The Fox broadcast team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, filling the airwaves with banter as the clock wound down to all zeroes, shared a contemplative moment as they tried to provide some context and insight as to what Ron Rivera had just accomplished. They specifically mentioned Rivera’s connection to Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden. Apparently, Rivera and Madden text each other.
Aikman stated that during their production meeting before the game, Rivera insisted on showing him 10 pages of typewritten notes Rivera had amassed in his many visits with Madden. Aikman called the notes “an encyclopedia of coaching” and “a philosophy on how to run a football team.” Buck added that according to Rivera, the most important piece of advice Madden gave was to “do it your way.”
What the Madden connection highlights is the rarity of a Latino head coach in the NFL.
Though they did not refer to it explicitly, Buck and Aikman had connected Rivera to another accomplished head coach, one that not only had taken his team to the Super Bowl twice, but also a coach who shares a geographic connection (California) as well as Latino heritage with him. That man, also a student of Madden’s, is none other than Tom Flores.
In the lead up to Super Bowl L, plenty of articles will highlight the connection between Rivera and Flores from a cultural perspective, and rightly so. Rivera is only the second Latino head coach to lead his team to the NFL’s biggest game, so his accomplishment ought to be celebrated no matter the outcome. But as we know, the NFL is all about winning, so it’d be much better if the Rivera-led Panthers are the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy aloft after the game’s conclusion.
But more about Madden. It’s an extraordinary coincidence that Madden has mentored the only two Latino head coaches to take a team to the Super Bowl. Many coaches pay visits to knowledgeable football gurus in the offseason, and Madden is undoubtedly at the top of a very short list. What the Madden connection highlights is the rarity of a Latino head coach in the NFL.
As Frederick Luis Aldama and I maintain in our book Latinos in the End Zone: Conversations on the Brown Color Line in the NFL, the expanding Latino demographic in the United States and the sheer popularity of American football have been on a collision course, and they will continue to converge as time goes on. The number of Latinos in the NFL will come closer to matching the larger demographic in the U.S. over time, but such inclusivity does not come quickly and without cost. The NFL, like any other business, is wary of changing its successful and lucrative product. The organization likes what works and what makes a profit.
The number of Latinos in the NFL will come closer to matching the larger demographic in the U.S. over time.
To be sure, the realm of professional sports is perhaps the most results-oriented business in the world. You win and good things happen. Lose, and you are forgotten at record speed. One would think that a successful coach who has achieved the highest level of success his job allows would be both lauded and revered. Tom Flores won two Super Bowl victories, and his quarterback in each was a Latino from California named Jim Plunkett. These two Latinos proved that they had what it took to be the best in their profession, yet each of these men remains outside of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is a dubious distinction for the NFL.
Of course, all coaches and players in the NFL are beholden to someone else’s time and mentorship. Often, Latino coaches such as Flores and Rivera are seen as being the products of another’s genius, not geniuses in their own right. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman attempted to highlight how Rivera has culled advice from excellent advisers, to show that he was savvy and humble. It is entirely plausible, however, that their comments shined too bright a light on Madden and not enough on Rivera, who is the star coach of the moment. It’s as if Madden had inadvertently overshadowed his Latino protégés once more, even though he had helped them immensely.
Make no mistake: Latinos are already large consumers of the NFL product. We have seen ourselves in the game’s greatest: Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Tony Gonzalez, Anthony Muñoz, Ron Rivera, and more. We have also seen how quickly the game forgets the contributions of these men and their efforts to shape professional football itself. These men also gave Latinos a stake in the game, that feeling of ownership many fans crave when they talk about “their team.” The NFL provides an unparalleled visibility to players from historically marginalized groups because of the ubiquity of the game. Unfortunately, the NFL often fails to embrace the success stories they have helped to cultivate.
Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Tony Gonzalez, Anthony Muñoz, Ron Rivera, and more gave Latinos a stake in the game.
For now, Rivera looks poised to continue to do things his way. Indeed, why change now? He is a success no matter the outcome of Sunday’s game, and many Latinos will be sure to watch. It’s equally important to note that those who are not Latino will also be watching. Sadly, far too many NFL fans do not know who Tom Flores is or what he accomplished. The NFL itself is guilty of ignoring one of its true legends. Super Bowl L presents the NFL with the rare opportunity to acknowledge the Latino talent in its history, and perhaps belatedly recognize people like Flores and Plunkett in the process of celebrating Ron Rivera. We await the action and excitement of this year’s biggest game, but we also expect the NFL to give credit to the Latinos in a time and place other than their usual plaudits during Hispanic Heritage Month. Latinos are a part of all of the NFL’s history, not just the times when it is politically expedient.
While we recognize and admire Ron Rivera’s achievements this season, we should also keep in mind that there should be more Latino coaches like him in professional football. In exactly five decades worth of Super Bowls, we have had exactly two Latino coaches lead teams to the big game. Though we do see more and more Latino players on the field, we see far fewer Latino members of coaching staffs on each sideline during any given week. Such change is slow to come, but it must.