As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell presented the Lombardi Trophy to the Ravens owner, I paid no attention. As Goodell turned his attention to their coach, I barely noticed. Even as Ray Lewis gave his heartfelt speech, there was only one gentleman I was focused on and Lewis was not that man. Who is this man? That’d be Ravens General Manager, Ozzie Newsome. His presence there meant so much to me and at the same time speaks volumes about black progress.
Newsome was the first black GM in the history of the NFL, having been appointed to that post in 2002. In many ways, that fact draws attention to the joys and pains of blackness. One part of me wants to cheer at such an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, while my left hand goes up in celebration, the right quietly wipes away a tear. Even as I approach my 30th birthday, I still routinely hear of “firsts” for black folks. My mind then began to wander to Tim Scott, the first African-American Senator from South Carolina and the first black senator from the south since Reconstruction (Scott was recently appointed to replace the retiring Jim DeMint). All these thoughts came to my head when I looked at Newsome. Again, progress to be celebrated and yet ever present reminders of the larger and at times painful, narrative of black progress.
Newsome certainly earned his stripes. He actually enjoyed a long playing career in the NFL, from 1978 to 1990. That in itself is a miracle, considering that the average career is just over three years. Before being named GM of the Ravens, Newsome had been a front office executive with the Browns since 1991. In essence, Newsome worked 24 years in the NFL (1978-2002) for his shot at GM. His counterpart in the Superbowl, 49ers GM Trent Baalke (from what I can tell), never played professionally, did some work on the high school level, broke into the NFL as a scout in 1998 and by 2011 was a GM (a 13 year journey in the NFL compared to 24 for Newsome). Every circumstance is unique and thus we should always be hesitant to extend judgment; even so, it’s inevitable that these facts, on face value, lure one into thinking of the pervasive inequities blacks have always faced in our journey.
In that I come from a people who’ve emerged from the slavery experience only as recently as World War II (see Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name”), delayed progress is to be expected and indeed it is natural that we are still experiencing firsts. Further, that which has occurred is indeed significant, nothing short of amazing. Ozzie Newsome’s moment in the sun was so much more than a GM celebrating the culmination of his diligent work in putting together a winning team. I experienced pride and pain, fascination and frustration: this is my life and our experience.