NFL Chicago Bears coach Lovie SmithAs if the pressure on National Football League coaches weren’t enough, especially during the playoffs, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy are forced to labor under the additional condition that everything they do will be characterized as having been accomplished—or failed, as the case may be—by a black American.

This Sunday, the two coaches will be leading teams in the NFL conference championship games, with the possibility that both will coach in the Super Bowl this year. And of course reporters have characterized this as a significant event, which of course it is, insofar as football is significant.

But there is a thorn in the acknowledgment of the men’s accomplishment. Smith noted in a TV interview that he is forced to bear an additional responsibility because he is black.

It’s unfortunate that a black American cannot just be a coach, or an entrepreneur, or a housewife but must be seen as a black coach, entrepreneur, or housewife. Americans tend to see each black or woman as a representative of a group rather than an individual.

As Smith put it yesterday,

I hope for a day when it is unnoticed, but that day isn’t here. This is the first time. You have to acknowledge that. We do. I do. I realize the responsibility that comes with that.

But as much as anything, I realize my responsibility of just being the head coach of the Chicago Bears, and it’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position. I’m just excited for our football team to be able to take another step.

Smith and Dungy have both handled these expectations admirably over the years, but they shouldn’t have to. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and New England Patriots coach Bill Bellichik are coaches, not white coaches, and that’s the way it should be for Smith and Dungy. They are people, not symbols.

We should hope that the day arrives soon when black Americans don’t have to bear an additional responsibility to other blacks or to society as a whole (having to exemplify our national ideal of equal opportunity) because of an accident of skin color, but instead are judged solely by their own accomplishments. To add to people’s burdens by making them symbols only makes their lives that much more difficult.

Most important of all, judging people as individuals gives each person the greatest incentive to use their time and talents—and that is the surest way to open the road to success for everyone.