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The NFL's Push for More Black Coaches Is Hurt by Nepotism, White Boardrooms

The NFL's Push for More Black Coaches Is Hurt by Nepotism, White Boardrooms

Monday, 7 January, 2019 - 07:30
The New York Jets’ Todd Bowles was among the five minority head coaches to be fired this week. Photograph: Bill Kostroun/AP
London - Oliver Connolly

The NFL’s annual Black Monday, when teams routinely fire coaches as the regular season ends, left the league with a dwindling number of minority coaches. Of the eight coaches who left their position this season, five were minorities: Steve Wilks, Marvin Lewis, Vance Joseph, Hue Jackson and Todd Bowles. One, Wilks, was fired after only one year on the job.

While some of those five may well be replaced by other minority coaches, the firings put the league in a difficult position. Roger Goodell, to his credit, has made the advancement of minority coaches one of the crucial issues during his run as NFL commissioner. The Rooney Rule, which requires all teams to interview a minority candidate for its openings at head coach and general manager, has been tweaked and improved. Several teams have adopted internship programs for ex-players looking to start a coaching career, and the league itself has plowed more resources into the development of minority coaches.

Still: in a sport where a majority – close to 70% – of the players are black, the NFL now has only three minority head coaches: Mike Tomlin and Anthony Lynn, who are African American, and Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic.

Two things can be true at once: there are not enough minority coaches in the NFL, and each of the firings on Monday was justified and reasonable given what we know about job security in football. Joseph strung together back-to-back losing seasons, the first time the Broncos have suffered that ignominy since the early 1970s. Bowles led the Jets to a 24-40 record in his four seasons in New York. Jackson went 3-36-1 in 40 games with the Cleveland Browns. Lewis spent 16 years in Cincinnati, failing to advance the Bengals beyond the opening round of the playoffs, an almost impressively bad accomplishment.

Without context, Wilks’ firing may seem the harshest: plenty of teams struggle in a coach’s debut season. They’re often afforded more time, even if only for team leadership to save some face. But Wilks’ Cardinals weren’t just bad, they were historically awful. Besides, impatience rules in the NFL: the Titans fired Mike Munchak after just one season and a lackluster playoff run.

The bigger issue at hand is who is making the hiring-firing decisions, and why that puts minority coaches at a disadvantage when they attempt to jump to head coaching gigs. As of now, there will be only one minority general manager heading into the 2019 coaching cycle, and it is general managers who play a huge part in hiring head coaches. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was fired last month, and legendary Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome is retiring at the end of the season, handing the reins to his longtime assistant Eric DeCosta, who is white. That leaves Chris Grier as the minority general manager in the NFL: he was promoted by the Miami Dolphins on Monday.

Diversity at the decision-making level is what will ultimately lead to diversity on the sidelines. “Hiring is more than just a process of skills sorting,” wrote Kellogg School of Management professor Lauren Rivera in a 2014 study. “It is also a process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms. Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but culturally similar to themselves.”

Decision-makers are more likely to hire those who look like them, sound like them, run in the same social circles, or have the same social experiences. The NFL currently has two minority owners. When a person of color walks into a job interview in the NFL, there is a very good chance that they will see a bunch of white faces who have lived different social experiences.

So much of this industry revolves around close, personal relationships. Twenty-two of the league’s 32 teams have been owned by the same person or family for at least 20 years. They all have coaches and executives they are particularly connected to. Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis didn’t hire Jon Gruden because he was the best person for the job. He did so because he liked him. And Gruden didn’t oust McKenzie and hire Mike Mayock as his GM because Mayock has a more illustrious track record as a team builder. He did it because he and Mayock share the same sensibilities.

In the past, this has worked to aid some minority candidates, too. Tony Dungy, who became the first black head-coach to win the Super Bowl when the Colts beat the Bears in 2007, has long been an advocate for fellow minorities. Dungy populated his own staffs with minority coaches and has consistently used his profile in the game to bring attention to the issue of diversity. And it’s worked. Dungy and his former assistants account for a staggering 43% of minority head coaching hires over the past two decades and 39% since the Rooney Rule took effect. That is both sad and encouraging – the same nepotism rules seem to apply to all. Dungy empowered minority assistants, who subsequently went on to become head honchos and empower their own assistants. But there aren’t too many minority coaches with Dungy’s prestige walking around.

The NFL tweaked its rules last year in a bid to prevent the kind of Gruden-Davis backroom deal. Owners are now required to sit in on all head coaching interviews. And gone are the days of the sham, in-house interviews with a person of color, meant only to satisfy the logistics of the Rooney Rule and not the spirit. Goodell and the league office, in a rare moment of leadership, understood the difficult position they were putting such minority coaches in.

“You are really stuck between a rock and a hard place,” a former African American NFL head coach told CBS Sports in 2016. “You have the pressure from the Fritz Pollard Alliance to take any interview you are offered ‘for the good of the cause,’ even if you felt like you are just being used. So you don’t want to let them down.”

The league changed the language of the rule. Now owners and decision-makers are required to interview an out-of-house candidate or someone from the league’s pre-approved list: the NFL’s Career Developmental List. It is a far from perfect solution. But it is a start.

One additional issue is the profile of head coaches teams are hiring. More and more they are hiring offensive assistants and quarterback coaches: 15 of the last 20 head coaching hires have had an offensive background. And coaches specializing in offense are overwhelmingly white. In 2018, there were 14 minority coordinators in the NFL, and only two were offensive coordinators.

As such, this becomes a fairly simple equation: owners want flashy, exciting hires. An explosive offense is considered more exciting than a feisty defense. There are more white offensive coaches than minority ones. There are more white executives than minorities. People hire candidates with similar backgrounds. Therefore, more white coaches are hired than minority ones, regardless of the make-up of the league generally.

All minority candidates have asked for is a fair chance to compete for the top jobs in their sport. To get there, the NFL needs to rethink its model. The Rooney Rule has helped progress, but it remains a flawed rule. Improving diversity at the executive level, and getting more minority coaches into offensive coaching positions is the only way forward.


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