In 1989 Art Shell became the first Black head coach of the modern era and the second in the league's 102-year history. Over that span, thirteen franchises have never employed a Black non-interim head coach, and eleven teams have had only one. Of the five hundred NFL head coaches, only twenty-four have been Black. Today, only two of the league's head coaches are Black; the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin and Houston Texans coach, Lovie Smith, who was recently hired after former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a discrimination lawsuit that sent shockwaves across the sports culture landscape. From a head coaching perspective, this hiring cycle resembled Fritz Pollard's in 1921.
It has been said that football is a microcosm of society, and the NFL is not swimming alone. There are only four Black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list, and there have been only nineteen since the list was first compiled in 1955. Undoubtedly, the graphic nature of the George Floyd murder created this latest edition of rectifying urgency. Corporate America felt the same obligation to address glaring inequity that many of us did as we sat in our quarantined homes in 2020. Nevertheless, after so many of the country's leading businesses pledged millions of dollars to combat systemic injustice and formulated internal strategies to diversify their ranks ethnically, closer analysis reveals that only eight percent of "C-suite" executives in these corporations are Black. Whether due to theatrics or ineptitude, their words have not produced largescale fruit. In far too many sectors, hiring Black decision-makers is still a special event instead of a daily routine.
What should be done?
Commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated a familiar phrase regarding the NFL's unwillingness to hire Black head coaches in a recent press conference. "We just have to do a better job." To the leagues' credit, ethnic diversity has been a subject of intense discussion and substantive action over the last several years. A month before Floyd, the 2020 NFL Draft pulled back the curtain on the whiteness of NFL war rooms for all to see. One could not deny the visual of 32 groups of primarily White men celebrating after a successful pick. Still, sentiment for change does not always produce results, and old habits are difficult to disrupt. People are tired of hearing phrases that are much better suited for post-game interviews than a career impeded and an opportunity denied. How many times are we to accept "We aren't where we want to be" or "We've not made the kind of progress that we would like to see"? Those answers feel like space fillers, lifeboats to survive the current controversy until peace resumes.
I am not a heart inspector. I do not know if NFL owners have devised a nefarious racist plan to exclude Black coaches en masse or if they sincerely believe the trickledown effect of their social justice work and altruism will bring color to their coaching trees. I suspect many are nestled somewhere in between. But neither ignorance nor intention is comforting, when a conversation that birthed the Rooney rule is the same conversation we are still having at this moment.
Sixteen NFL seasons taught me the importance of goal setting and honest assessment. IF NFL ownership truly desires to increase the percentage of Black head coaches, they will have to deploy the same energy, strategy, and foresight they utilize in their business empires. It is one thing for the league to admit it has an ongoing problem. It is another to take radical measures to eradicate it.
Transparency, accountability, and collective commitment are foundational pillars that guarantee achievement. Head coaching candidates should know the club's determined qualifications for vacancies they are seeking to fill, including coaching experience, success rate, and salaries. The subjective criterion that currently exists will always provide an escape from accountability and incubate an ecosystem where networks, nepotism, and a hunch can easily trump experience. While that is their prerogative, such actions will never achieve the outcomes that ownership and the league office espouse. Like the twenty-five-billion-dollar 2027 revenue target the commissioner touts, hiring targets should also be collectively set and completed each cycle. Incentives for accomplishment and penalties for neglect must be part of any serious attempt to pass these periodical hiring audits. Without a concrete plan to remedy this problem, we can only conclude this issue is more of an eyesore and embarrassment than a travesty to solve.
The pipeline isn't the problem. Names like Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, Byron Leftwich, Pep Hamilton, and Eric Bienemy are a few that are routinely mentioned as possible head coach candidates but have remained in the bullpen as White coaches have filled head coaching positions with substantially less experience. Additionally, for most Black coaching candidates to even be considered, playing experience is necessary. It seems as if being a guru with a sharp football mind is simply not enough. The pipeline is chockfull, but it cannot force the hand of opportunity.
Programs aren't the problem. In 2020 the NFL adopted seemingly bold protocols to increase workplace diversity, expanding the Rooney Rule and creating coaching fellowships. Unfortunately, these efforts can appear disingenuous for many potential Black head coaches, positions coaches, and coordinators who have been overlooked in the past or requested to participate in sham interviews.
Revenue is not a problem. While the league's Black players and their star power help secure the billion-dollar tv contracts, the contribution of coaches, especially Black coaches, is not as calculable. Responsible club owners make fiduciary decisions to grow the game for all parties involved. Throughout sports history, Black players were accepted in White leagues when the prospect of revenue and winning potential outweighed the comfort of resistance. If hiring a Black coach is not sure to increase revenue, what incentive do some owners have for veering from the status quo?
My former teammate, New England Patriots Linebacker coach Jarod Mayo recently expressed his thoughts, "At the end of the day, don't hire me because I'm Black," he said. "Hire me because I'm competent. Hire me because I can lead a group of men and women after a common goal, a common vision, a shared vision. Hire me because I'm the best person for the job." Jerod will make a fabulous head coach; however, I disagree with him on one point. Like so many others before him, Jerod will be more than qualified for the position when the time comes. Qualifications have never been the stumbling block, only opportunity. It's time to hire him because he is black. If not, "End Racism" painted endzones will continue to indict a league that has hired only two black coaches in the last two hiring cycles. It's a problem that's not too hard to fix.