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Seventy percent of NFL players that take the field are Black. However, there are only three Black head coaches in this 2020 season – that’s nine percent of the league’s coaches. A little while back, we explored the plight of the Black quarterback, which is equivalent to the “coach” in the huddle. We found that one of the contributing factors to the stigma of Black quarterbacks being inadequate thinkers on the field start at the top. There is not one single Black NFL team owner. As a matter of fact, there are only two people of color in the ranks of NFL ownership: The Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, who is of South Korean descent, and Jaguars owner Rafiq Khan, who is a Pakistani-born American. When it comes down to it, people hire those who look like them and that elephant in the room is what has contributed to a large discrepancy of racial equality in the front offices of NFL organizations.
Absence of melanin in the front office is most definitely not a result of lack of effort. There have been many attempts to break into what many NFL players have referred to as a “rich white boys club.” In 2017, Jerry Richardson, the beleaguered former owner of the Carolina Panthers, announced that he was putting the franchise up for sale following allegations of workplace misconduct. Diddy, along with NBA star Steph Curry, joined a group with billionaire executive Michael Rubin to pursue ownership of the Panthers. They were priced out when the price tag reached a record $2.5 billion before being sold to Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner David Tepper for $2.2 billion.
Close, But No Cigars
Diddy’s bid to buy the Panthers wasn’t the first foray into Black NFL ownership. The mission has been underway since as early as the 1970s. Football player Rommie Loudd attempted to found an all-Black ownership group for a football team in Memphis called the Kings named for Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time, Loudd had already broken barriers as the first Black assistant in the American Football League or AFL. He was also the first Black front office worker. Loudd was able to convince the likes of Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr. and even Jim Brown to join the group. Although the group had the money, it was their melanin that caused the most resistance from the NFL. Loudd was slandered and accused of being part of a drug sting, something he denied until the day he died.
Presently, The African American Sports & Entertainment Committee is still seeking to create the first Black-owned team in NFL history. With the Raiders leaving Oakland for Las Vegas, the group wants to bring a franchise back to the city. The group sent a letter to the NFL back in June with the proposal of privately funded expansion. In October, they made an offer to purchase Oakland’s $92 million interest in the Coliseum. As of publication, the proposal is still pending.
Top to Bottom
As previously mentioned, people tend to hire those who look like them and with no Black ownership, the trickle-down effect is an embarrassing disproportionate number of Black coaches and staff. When the 2020 season opened, there were only three Black head coaches in the NFL: Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Los Angeles’ Anthony Lynn, and Miami’s Brian Flores. Miami’s Chris Grier is the only Black general manager. Like many other forms of oppression, this one is systemic. There are several layers that must be peeled back to get to the root of the problem — and to fix it. The NFL made an ornamental attempt with the establishment of the “Rooney Rule.” Under the Rooney Rule, teams are required to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation roles. The policy says nothing about actually hiring minorities in these positions and it shows. For those who scream that affirmative action is reverse discrimination and argue that the positions go to the most qualified, you may want to sit this one out.
The policy is named after former Steelers owner and chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee Dan Rooney, and was created in response to the firings of Tony Dungy and Dennis Green in 2002. At the time, Dungy had a winning record with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green just had his first losing season in a decade. The 2006 season saw a jump in the percentage of Black coaches to 22 percent from 6 percent prior to the implementation of the rule. However, of eight head coaching vacancies prior to the 2019 season, only one team hired a non-white head coach.
Shorter Leash with Higher Hurdles
Whenever Black candidates have been hired as head coaches, their leashes are quite a bit shorter than those of their white counterparts. Take for instance Steve Wilks. Wilks was hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 after a successful stint as defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. He was fired after just one season when the Cardinals finished 3-13. His successor, Kliff Kingsbury finished 5-10-1 in his first season at the helm, but that’s not the most important thing here. Kingsbury was hired with no NFL coaching experience and had just been fired as the head coach at Texas Tech after three straight losing seasons. Not to mention he had the NFL’s current Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes as one of his offensive weapons while at Tech.
Another instance that displays the glaring discrepancy among Black and white head coaches is the current state of the Detroit Lions. Jim Caldwell started his NFL head coaching career with a bang, tying for the best start by a rookie head coach as he coached the Colts to 14 wins. The next season, the Colts finished 10-6, but Caldwell was fired after the team limped to a 2-14 record the following year after losing quarterback Peyton Manning for the season. Caldwell resumed his head coaching career when he took the Detroit job in 2014. He had one losing season in the four years he spent in Motor City and was fired after the team finished 9-7 for the second year in a row. His 56.3 percent winning percentage was the best for a Lions head coach since the 1950s. The Lions moved on to Matt Patricia. Now in his third season at the helm, Patricia has two losing seasons and a 32.9 percent winning percentage.
Highly Qualified, But Over-Melanated
Following the firing of Ron Rivera during the 2019 season, the Carolina Panthers interviewed Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy before ultimately deciding to hire Matt Rhule. Rhule’s only previous NFL experience was as assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants in 2012. Not only was he picked over Bieniemy; he was also signed to a seven-year $60 million deal without coaching a single NFL game. Bieniemy, coming off a Super Bowl win, also interviewed with the New York Giants and the Cleveland Browns. The Giants ended up hiring Joe Judge, the Patriots wide receivers coach, despite Judge having no coordinator experience. The Browns hired Kevin Stefanski who had one and a half seasons of experience as an NFL offensive coordinator. The Panthers and Giants both sit at 3-7 while the Browns are 6-3. Kansas City only has one loss on the season.
Bieniemy was asked by SI.com if he thinks the Rooney Rule is effective and he answered, “Like I said, I had an opportunity to interview, OK. That should say it all, you know? It was a great conversation, now it’s on to the game.”
Despite his immense success in Kansas City, Bieniemy interviewed for seven different positions over the past two seasons and was overlooked every time. Meanwhile, Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady is already in head coaching discussions only ten games into his NFL offensive coordinator career. While Brady himself says that he pays no attention to the chatter, it’s disturbing that the conversation is being had at all so prematurely. Wilks, referenced earlier, worked his way up the NFL coaching ranks for 12 years before getting the Arizona head coaching job while Dungy struggled for the better part of a decade before getting his shot in Tampa Bay.
Off the Beaten Path
Yet another hurdle on the road to head coaching positions for Black candidates is the fact that offensive coaches have been the ones pegged next up on the head coaching radar. Time and time again, we hear the term “great offensive mind” when it comes to those selected as head coaches. The problem is, Black coaches are not being hired for those positions either. Bieniemy was one of only two Black offensive coordinators going into the 2020 season. The other is Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich. Lack of Black offensive coordinators also ties into the stigmas long associated with Black quarterbacks.
Fixing the league’s systemic racial disparities won’t happen overnight, but it needs to be met with functional action — not just ornamental. It’s a top to bottom action item starting with more Black ownership, general managers, head coaches, and coordinators. Last week, NFL owners passed a proposal that incentivizes increasing diversity. The resolution calls for a pair of compensatory third round draft picks to be rewarded to organizations that develop a minority candidate hired by another franchise as a head coach or general manager. The proposal now has to be approved by the NFL Players Association.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on a conference call, “We have taken many steps in this area, particularly over the last year. But, we all recognize that we must do more to support development opportunities for minority coaches and all personnel.”
The NFL’s workplace diversity committee developed the current proposal after a previous one was not approved by the owners during May’s remote meeting.
There are more than enough qualified Black candidates to fill these front office and head coaching positions as illustrated in the few instances where Black people have been given the opportunity. Tomlin’s Steelers are the league’s only undefeated team and he’s failed to have a losing record in his 14 years at the helm of the Black & Yellow. The race for the 2020 NFL MVP is arguably between two Black quarterbacks: Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. The proof is in the pudding, but when will the NFL be ready to sit down and have a taste?