The Race Card: Why Marvin Lewis Won’t Play It

By Kenneth N. Robinson
Updated: September 11, 2007

BUFFALO — The Cincinnati Bengals, hoping to revive their status as a Super Bowl contender, kicked off their 2007 regular season with a rousing win on national television against AFC North Division rival the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football.

For Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, the Ravens franchise will always conjure up special emotions because it was there that he made his mark as a special coaching talent.

As defensive coordinator of the Ravens, Lewis presided over one of the greatest units in the history of the NFL, which propelled the franchise to a Super Bowl win in 2000, despite a weak offense that went the entire month of October without a touchdown that year.

To think, Brian Billick, the Ravens’ head coach actually wanted to dump Lewis — a holdover from the Ravens previous head coach — in favor of Gunther Cunningham, who is white. Still, Lewis, ever the diplomat has taken one insult at a time, in stride.

Famed NFL television analyst John Madden observed of Lewis in 2006, “He was hired (as head coach in the NFL) three years too late.” Following the Ravens Super Bowl win there was one team without a head coach that could have hired him in the Buffalo Bills which hired Gregg Williams, who is white.

But when a reporter asked then Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe, about the minority candidates whom he passed over, including Lewis, he replied, “Hiring a minority head coach is not a priority. It’s more important to interview them.”

This neo-segregationist slight was patently discriminatory and a violation of Lewis’ Civil Rights pursuant to the 1964 law and its provision against disparate treatment. Yet Lewis never issued a qualm over race nor did the media. (This writer wrote a letter to the Buffalo News in staunch opposition.) Although Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy decried it right away, “It had to be race”, he said.

Yet in 2003, former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Cris Collingsworth interviewed Lewis on HBO’s Inside the NFL, where he openly broached the question of race as a factor in Lewis being passed over for a number of head coaching jobs in the NFL.

Lewis would not touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Still in 2003 as the Bengals were preparing to play the Buffalo Bills a reporter from the Buffalo News asked Lewis about being passed over for Gregg Williams in 2001 despite that Marvin had worked for Donahoe with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lewis, with typical diplomacy indicated that Donahoe had always been a supporter of his career.

He offered this despite the racial insult Donahoe hurled at him two years earlier. An interesting irony is that had Donahoe hired Lewis, he might still be working in Buffalo instead he was fired after hiring Gregg Williams and later Mike Mularkey, a pair of two-year head coaching busts and not the kind you find in Canton.

Ironically, the Bengals hired Lewis in 2003 only after Mularkey declined their head coaching offer, another insult that he shook off. While Lewis has not had a losing season in three full seasons with the Bengals, the Bills are on their third head coach in the six years since they passed on him to say nothing of their playoff futility that is nearing a decade of demise.

Still the more Lewis keeps his stride, the more the insults seem to roll like thunder. This spring, I read where Lewis issued an apology for making comments about the Cincinnati Police Department on ESPN Radio regarding his players perhaps being profiled.

In 2006, the Cincinnati Bengals had a league-high nine incidents involving players on the wrong side of the law and the league’s new conduct policy and 2007 was “shaping up like a continuum” after Chris Henry was cited for traffic infractions on March 25 among other incidents involving their players.

Lewis sought to clarify his comments on ESPN radio by noting he was referring to his players’ high profile status as NFL players rather than their race as a factor in the question of profiling. I am not surprised Lewis would seek to clarify this and also issue an apology, diplomacy is one his primary strengths. However, was such an apology even warranted?

The U.S. Justice Department has conceded that racial profiling is a problem in America and blacks are often seen as usual suspects. Still Lewis offered his apology to the city’s Commissioner of Police-who was thoughtful enough to note that knowing Lewis since he arrived in their community, “he would never intentionally disparage”, the police department.

Wow! What a difference a few years can make. What is wrong with people in Cincinnati and throughout the NFL and the media that provides blanket coverage of it? Lest we forget what Marvin Lewis inherited in the Cincinnati Bengals community in 2003?

Not only was the team in shambles and being disparaged nationally as the “Bungles” but the town was teetering on the brink of a racial meltdown. Several unarmed blacks had died at the hands of Cincinnati police through their use of discriminate deadly force but were never charged.

Lewis did not have to disparage the Cincinnati Police Department they did a good enough job themselves before he arrived. In fact, the racial turmoil that followed the murders of unarmed blacks at the hands of city police was so great, many Black entertainers refused to perform in Cincinnati as many had done in South Africa during Apartheid.

Still, Lewis should not have had to apologize for speaking about the problem of racial profiling that others would rather ignore. Especially in light of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s new conduct policy that allows him to be the judge, jury and the executioner, if need be. Yet, the sports reporting media have not broached the question of racial profiling in relation to the league’s celebrated conduct policy.

Not long after Lewis made his remarks about profiling by policy that were chastised in the media, Tank Johnson, an outstanding but troubled defensive tackle was cut by the Chicago Bears, after he was arrested under the suspicion of driving while impaired.

The results of a breathalyzer test later revealed that Johnson’s alcohol level was below the legal limit and the charges were dropped. Today, he is out of football. In the case of Bengals wideout Chris Henry who is currently serving an 8-game suspension imposed by Commissioner Goodell for traffic infractions, he apparently has been plagued by racial profiling it seems, his high number of actual incidents notwithstanding.

Earlier this year, a local prosecutor leaked a false report to the press that Henry failed a mandatory drug test. When it was later revealed that Henry had not failed the test, the prosecutor refused to apologize to the receiver whom he called a “low-life.”

The Commissioner’s new emphasis on player conduct while having some general import seems to be causing greater police scrutiny on NFL players that are black. Just recently a Cleveland Browns player was arrested for driving backwards at an airport.

Perhaps that is what Lewis was attempting to point out in his remarks about profiling of NFL players, most of who are black. In the book Pros and Cons: Criminals Who Play in the NFL, the authors found that over 90 percent of all criminal arrests involved black players.

The League denounced the book for its racial implications rather than ceasing the opportunity to curb the problem. When ESPN created a supposedly fictitious series of the fast life in professional football called ” Playmakers” which showed players running afoul of the law and engaging in risky and promiscuous conduct, the league sent the network a not a so subtle hint that if the show was not pulled, it would not be forgotten at the next round of television contracts for NFL games.

ESPN pulled the highly rated series, yet the problems of NFL players running amuck of the law and perhaps being profiled continues. One of the biggest problems associated with player misconduct is that many black players do not know that blacks were at one time banned from the NFL because of their race from 1934-1946.

When Lewis sought to introduce his players to Bill Willis who starred for the Cleveland Browns and is a black pioneer and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they had never heard of him.

In the case of the Bengals, Lewis has had the misfortune of being typecast as running an undisciplined football team in Cincinnati and talk of him being on the proverbial head coaching “hot-seat” picked up in the off season.

But NFL head coaches that are white such as Jimmy Johnson, Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves and Marty Schottemheimer to name a few have always signed players with “character” problems, but were thought of by the media as “giving guys a chance”.

But in 2006, when new Commissioner Roger Goodell chose to make his statement against off the field conduct involving NFL players he chose Cincinnati as the ideal backdrop. The idea backfired. Not only did Bengals football players continue to find trouble, but after every reported incident, the media noted the Commissioner had spoken to the team.

No one questioned how the Commissioner’s visit helped to perpetuate their problems as the players seemed to buy into the idea they were the NFL’s “bad boys.” Social scientist W.I. Tomas remarked on the effects of labeling, “If you believe a situation is real, then it is real in its consequences.”

Perhaps this explains why some Bengals players continued to find trouble as their likeness. Even worse the media had a love fest, punishing the Bengals mercilessly, particularly on national television.

Even the once aforementioned Collingsworth, who once bragged that his son could now wear a Bengals jersey with pride since Lewis arrived, jabbed the team nationally on NBC during an 2006 preseason game, stating: “It’s halftime and not a single Bengals player has been arrested.”

What was the effect of such unabashed bashing that went on during 2006? The Bengals’ promising season, which began with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, went terribly awry.

Conversely, the San Diego Chargers had seven incidents and distractions including a player being shot by the police. Still, neither the Chargers head coach nor their front office had to contend with persistent questions about off the field player misconduct as did the Bengals and Lewis.

A big reason, perhaps, the Chargers posted a 14-2 record, the best in the NFL in 2006. On the other hand, the Bengals season was derailed after they posted an 8-8 record and did not qualify for the playoffs.

If Lewis wanted to play the race card he certainly has had ample opportunity, after being dealt it by the NFL and media albeit subliminally more often. Worst even, Lewis took considerable pressure off the Cincinnati Bengals and the NFL who were both parties in a lawsuit filed in 2003 by a taxpayer and Hamilton County Legislator alleging “extortion” in the way the Bengals secured taxpayer financing for Paul Brown Stadium where they kept losing before Lewis arrived.

It is said winning cures everything. An Appeals court later upheld a lower court decision dismissing the suit on a technicality.

Rather than playing the race card, perhaps Lewis has been the best lesson of how not to play it. Folly for anyone to suggest he would ever do it and even worse that he would have to apologize for being misunderstood.

Hopefully, the Bengals football players understand the privilege they have not just in their NFL careers, but appreciate to a greater extent what they have in a fine head coach like Marvin Lewis. If they play their cards right and stay focused on football, they just may make it to Arizona and Super Bowl XLII.

Lewis knows the way.