Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady talks with umpire Bruce Stritesky during an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Washington Football Team, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
( AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Announcer: This is The Takeaway with Tanzina Vega.
Tanzina Vega: On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs faced off in Tampa for Super Bowl 55, and like most things during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's going to look a lot different this year. The Super Bowl usually sells out sometimes reaching more than 100,000 attendees, but this year, there'll be fewer than 25,000 fans because of the pandemic. The big event also comes at the end of a tumultuous season for the NFL, which saw the league keeping games going even as multiple teams dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks.
The Super Bowl is also happening against the backdrop of ongoing scrutiny into the league’s hiring practices, notably, the absence of Black hires in coaching and leadership positions. For more on this, we called up Michael Fletcher, senior writer for ESPN’s enterprise team. Michael, welcome back to the show.
Michael Fletcher: Hey, good to be here.
Tanzina: I have to say that was a surprise from our control room, my first Super Bowl sounding introduction. Michael, let's start with the Super Bowl. What kind of safety measures have been put in place for the players, for the coaches, the staff, and the people who are supposed to show up?
Michael Fletcher: Everything is a different issue, as you noted. The players are being tested, from what I understand, twice a day. They have to pass those tests. If they have any contact, if any exposure to the virus, they're held away from the team. Several Kansas City Chiefs are facing that now. There was a bit of eruption when their team barber was tested positive and everyone had to be kept away. The normal media day, which is always a big spectacle at the Super Bowl, of course had to be done virtually this year. Then, as you noted that the fans are going to be a much-reduced number of people in the stance.
Overall, what you're going to have is, in my mind, is a muted Super Bowl, even though it's a great match-up, you have these kinds of legendary quarterbacks in your own way, but somehow the game is kind of under this pause that the entire country, the entire world is suffering right now.
Tanzina: Michael, after this year's regular season ended, there were six open head coaching positions, only one of them went to a Black coach, another position went to the league's first Muslim-American coach. Why is there a league where players are almost 70% Black, and it's failing to hire Black coaches?
Michael Fletcher: That's the million-dollar question. It's so, I think, infuriating to people who are in those coaching pipelines. The league talks a good game, the league itself notes the hiring of Black coaches, the Black general managers, and Black team presidents, but somehow the owners are just not comfortable, that's the only thing you can say. They're just not comfortable with hiring Black men or women in those positions. It's as simple as that. If you look at the Rooney Rule, for example, for years now it's been almost two decades that the league has required teams hiring head coaches to interview at least one minority candidate.
They recently boasted that to two, they've incentivized teams to hire, or at least developed coaching candidates to get the extra draft choices if they develop people who are hired as team leaders, but if you step back from that, it's interesting that the owners are incentivizing themselves to do the right thing. It's just odd. I think it's a problem that you probably see not just in NFL, it’s glaring in NFL, but you see this across this country, across corporate America, where particularly in these key leadership jobs, kind of the face of the franchise jobs, the face of the company jobs, there's a real hesitancy to hire Black people to run stuff.
I think it comes down to comfortability, because if you're an owner of a team, you want someone that you just 100% relate to, to run the team that in some ways that's understandable, but what's disappointing is, why Black people cannot be in that number?
Tanzina: I agree with you there, Michael. I think there are lots of issues that prevent that from happening. Yet, this has also been an issue for Black quarterbacks in the NFL. There have been some improvement in that area. There are more Black quarterbacks now than there have been in the past?
Michael Fletcher: Oh, absolutely. Now, arguably, particularly this coming generation of Black quarterbacks, you look no further than the Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes is kind of the standard-bearer, if you will, that they keep the consensuses, that he's the all-talented, the greatest, the best quarterback in the game right now, and he's just one of many. He's the biggest name.
I turn on my TV, every time I turn it on Sundays, I see him on my screen playing football and making all kinds of commercials, so these guys are huge, these guys are definitely-- Mahomes is one, and others will be. People talk about DeShaun Watson. He's considered the top-five quarterback. Lamar Jackson was last season's MVP, like the previous season to this one.
Kyler Murray was a top pick two years ago with the Arizona Cardinals. You have Black quarterbacks kind of on the rise in the NFL. I think that ceiling has been broken. I think coaches and teams are now comfortable with Black quarterbacks and kind of their style of play as well, like this one style of play because Black quarterbacks play just like anybody else, but in the past, the knock was or stereotype was that Black quarterbacks are "dual-threat quarterback," which-- The word’s a good thing in football. You can run and you can pass, but somehow that is to bear a negative connotation that somehow, if you're a good runner you can't be a good passer.
A lot of these guys in the league now has proven out to be just a myth. The Black quarterback myth has been put to rest, I hope it has. It apparently has and, hopefully, that will soon be the case for coaches, even though the progress has been negative progress. We've actually seen slippage in that area, but maybe that'll change.
Tanzina: Michael, one of the things the Super Bowl is known for is advertising. Several major brands, including Coke and Budweiser, which are huge brands, are not running ads during the broadcast this year. What's behind that?
Michael Fletcher: I think they don't want to feel tone-deaf at this point. I can't remember which company is going to actually give the money, they would normally spend on a Superbowl commercial to the Ad Council to talk about vaccine awareness, I believe. Again, the COVID situation just intrudes everywhere. We're so used to seeing those clouds [unintelligible 00:07:11] and people talk about whether just a commercial will come up, and I'm sure there'll be interesting commercials, but again, this dapper from the pandemic is heading there.
What I've read is that some of, I guess, the companies that have done well in a pandemic, the DoorDashes and people like that, will be advertising, but again, you have this kind of pause that I think it’s time-keeping over to advertising.
Tanzina: One bright spot, potentially, in this weekend's festivities will be National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman who caught all of our eyes and attention for her fantastic performance at the inauguration last month, she will be performing at the Super Bowl, and she is the first poet to ever perform at the event. What do you make of that, Michael?
Michael Fletcher: I think it's great. What a platform? It's a great platform for the music performances and to be for her as well, but I can't help but be a little cynical about the NFL’s intentions here. People talk about virtue signaling rather than doing so. We just talked about the problems the league has and, for whatever reason, in hiring Black leadership, but this is something they can do. We saw this at the beginning of the year after the uprisings across the country this summer with the NFL, its sudden embrace of Black Lives Matter.
To be fair, they weren't alone. The NFL did that just like the other sports leagues, just like much of corporate America. In my mind, it's a great, great platform, but I think it's the NFL's way of trying to say, "We're with the times, we understand the social currents in our country, and we want to signal to the world that we’re with that."
Tanzina: Michael, the Super Bowl is usually something that people gather in large events, and therefore, folks shouldn't be doing that this year because of the pandemic. Anthony Fauci, among others, have told people to stay home and celebrate at home. Do you have any plans on how you're going to watch the game on Sunday?
Michael Fletcher: I was going to-- No Super Bowl party theme, I'm telling you that. There was [unintelligible 00:09:30] a week ago, hopefully it's changed, but I read where 25% of Americans still plan to get together with friends to watch the game. Myself, I think I'll try to find a chicken wing recipe at some time, bake some wings and maybe make a small pitcher of margaritas and watch the game by myself, and if there’s this especially exciting moment, I'll yell out to my wife to come watch the replay. I'm sure she'll say, "It looks like the last replay you had me look at in a month ago."
Tanzina: I suspect there will be many.
Michael Fletcher: I’ll be watching it alone.
Tanzina: Michael, I suspect you won't be alone in that experience, at least collectively. Michael Fletcher is the senior writer for ESPN’s enterprise team. Michael, thank you so much, and enjoy those wings.
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