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An all-Black NFL officiating crew should’ve happened a long time ago

‘Monday Night Football’ will be historic, but the league must resist the urge to pat itself on the back

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football, the National Football League will celebrate the breaking of yet another racial barrier: All seven of the officials working the game will be African American.

Far from wanting to pat the NFL on its back, my first reaction was exasperation, cynicism and two large questions:

When do we stop checking boxes?

When do we stop counting?

Last week, I asked Wayne Mackie, the NFL’s vice president of officiating evaluation and development, why we should care. Why should we celebrate Monday night’s historic first?

“I think we should celebrate it because it’s a testament of us standing on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Mackie said, referring to past generations of Black officials. “We are standing on shoulders of giants who plowed their way through and had to deal with what they had to deal with to allow us, in 2020, to have an opportunity to go out there and officiate a football game. Hopefully we’re breaking down barriers where this doesn’t even become an issue or a conversation anymore.”

The NFL did not have any Black officials until 1965 when Burl Toler Sr. was hired as head linesman. Toler was also the first African American to be a Super Bowl official. Yet, in the parallel universe of Black college football, there were hundreds of African American officials calling college games, working primarily in predominantly Black conferences such as the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. All they needed was a chance.

Johnny Grier, the first African American NFL referee in 1988, made sure they got one.

While he worked as an NFL official, Grier was the supervisor of football officials for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. He made sure that talented Black candidates were put in the NFL’s officiating pipeline.

“We finally got the opportunity,” Mackie said. “We finally got the opportunity to be able to get out and show our worth. We got the opportunity to coexist.”

When we spoke in February, former NFL official Mike Carey reinforced the importance of having African Americans as shot callers. In 2015, Carey became the first African American Super Bowl referee.

“If you don’t have strong diversity in your management group, the chance of having diversity anywhere else is limited,” he told me at the time. “That has been the case for decades in the NFL as far as officiating is concerned.”

Since white supremacy is intentional, intentionality is the only way to reverse its effects. The NFL formed the McNally committee in 2007 with the idea of bringing more underrepresented groups into officiating. They struck an agreement that 50% of new hires would come from these underrepresented groups. Today, 40 of the NFL’s 121 officials are Black. Of those, four are crew chiefs or referees.

The heartbreaking part of these firsts is the frustration of Black men and women who had so much talent but never got the opportunity to compete. The misconception about Black firsts is that these pioneers were the first to be good enough to break through.

Others were denied the opportunity, not because they lacked confidence or skills but because of ironclad, suffocating white supremacy that systematically locked Black people out: 250 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of legalized segregation that prevented generation after generation of African Americans from gaining an economic foothold in the United States.

The NFL banned Black players from 1934 to 1946. After that, aspiring Black players were victimized by quotas and then restricted from playing so-called “thinking positions,” chief among them quarterback. The NFL and all of the other pro leagues were made stronger by Black athletes. The influx of dynamic Black quarterbacks has transformed the position.

Yet today, even with upward of 67% of its players being of African descent, the NFL has dragged its feet on hiring Black head coaches and executives.

“Why do we have to work so hard to prove our worth in society and be able to get out there and show that we’re just as qualified?” Mackie asked. “All we need is an opportunity to prove our worth. That’s all we ask for is an opportunity.”

We have had the first Black president of the United States. Earlier this month we elected the first woman, the first Black woman, the first woman of color as vice president. We have seen the first Black quarterback and the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl title.

The string of firsts is a reflection of decades worth of barriers and obstacles.

When will we stop counting Black firsts?

Said Mackie: “Why should this even be an issue, for everything to be a first in 2020, after over 100 years of football being played? …

“You have the first five officials in the Super Bowl, now you’ve got a crew of Black officials completely doing the game. We have to get to a point where this is not even noticeable. This should be the very foundation of America.”

So, yes, let’s celebrate Monday night’s news: All seven officials will be African American. Some will look at this as an American nightmare; for most of us, it represents the American dream.

But the NFL must resist the urge to pat itself on the back. This should have happened a long time ago. The league is simply making up for lost time.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.