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Another chance for the NFL to make progress on inclusive hiring

Will this hiring cycle be any different for the league’s frustrated Black assistant coaches?

As another NFL hiring cycle goes into full swing Monday, the league’s frustrated Black assistant coaches remain eager to finally get into the game significantly. 

During recent hiring periods, which traditionally begin as most clubs cut ties with head coaches on the first day following the conclusion of the regular season, Black assistants have received markedly fewer opportunities than their white counterparts to reach the highest rung of the league’s coaching ladder. It stirs resentment among them toward team owners, who rely largely on Black bodies to power their multibillion-dollar industry.

In interviews with The Undefeated over the past several years, many Black assistants have decried the double standard in hiring, privately expressing anger that white assistants clearly have, to put it kindly, an easier path to reaching the head coach’s office.

Despite the ongoing efforts of the league office to encourage owners to expand their thinking regarding inclusive hiring throughout the clubs’ football operations, the numbers remain abysmal. With the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars head-coaching positions having opened during the season and as many as another five jobs potentially vacant soon, club owners have another opportunity to make meaningful progress toward leveling the field. N. Jeremi Duru is hopeful they’ll seize this chance and capitalize on it.

A professor of sports law at American University and author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, Duru senses a shift is occurring, albeit still way too slowly, after the short, disastrous reign of former Jacksonville head coach Urban Meyer.

Before this season, Jaguars owner Shad Khan locked in quickly on Meyer, who won three college national championships while at the University of Florida and Ohio State. Woefully overmatched on the field and an abject embarrassment to the organization off of it, Meyer had a 2-11 record and was fired in December with four games remaining in the season. Khan has signaled he will lead the Jaguars’ current coaching search in a vastly different manner, which shows the type of growth that could result in positive change across the entire hiring landscape, Duru said.

“Last cycle, the Jacksonville Jaguars zeroed in on Urban Meyer as if he were the only candidate that could do the job there. It seems quite clear from the beginning that the job was his … and by any objective assessment it was a train wreck,” Duru said. “Now, [Khan] is going about the process the right way. This time, he’s taking his time, he’s being deliberative.

“He’s interviewing a wide swath of candidates, some who are of color and some who are not of color. It seems like he’s engaging a process designed to find the best candidate. … If other clubs can learn from the lesson that the Jacksonville Jaguars have learned from, there’s hope that [more clubs] will pursue a process designed to get the best candidate and not just the one person who they thought they were looking for.” 

Black assistants would be delighted if the Jaguars’ pursuit of Meyer becomes a cautionary tale that helps more of them receive legitimate consideration for openings. By now, their unsettling story is as familiar as the overt racism on display. 

Of the seven openings for head coaches at the beginning of the 2020-21 cycle, one was filled by a Black man. Over the previous four cycles, there have been 27 openings. During that span, three Black men became head coaches.

In the 32-team NFL this season, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, David Culley of the Houston Texans, hired in January 2021 after serving as the Baltimore Ravens’ assistant head coach and wide receivers coach, and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins (who is Afro Latino) were the league’s only Black coaches. Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team is Latino.

Head coach Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins before a game against the New York Giants at Hard Rock Stadium on Dec. 5, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Additionally, the New York Jets in the previous cycle hired former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a Lebanese American who has the distinction of being the NFL’s first Muslim head coach. That’s great. Anything that moves the ball on inclusion marks progress.

When it comes to providing opportunities for qualified Black coaches, however, the NFL repeatedly fumbles it. The league has never had more than eight Black head coaches in any season. In an overwhelmingly Black league — whose on-field workforce reached a record high of 69.7% during the 2016 season — that’s unacceptable.

In an encouraging development, three Black general managers were hired during the previous cycle: Terry Fontenot of the Atlanta Falcons, Brad Holmes of the Detroit Lions and Martin Mayhew of Washington. With those moves, the league’s number of Black general managers increased from two to five (the NFL has never had more than seven). And a significant breakthrough recently occurred in business operations at the club level. In August 2021, Jason Wright became the NFL’s first Black team president, taking control of Washington before the league’s 101st season kicked off.

However, even commissioner Roger Goodell and Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations and Goodell’s bannerman in the ongoing fight for fairness in hiring, concede the NFL cannot claim victory because of a handful of positive developments. There’s much more work to be done in an effort to make the league more diverse from the front office to the field.

“We have taken necessary steps to create a workplace culture aimed at eliminating bias, promoting trust, developing skills and providing opportunity,” Vincent wrote in a text message to The Undefeated. “We always look to improve by promoting change that echoes the values of the game. Bottom line: You shouldn’t have to mandate interviewing people of color, minorities or gender.”

Over the past two years, substantive changes to the Rooney Rule haven’t moved the needle in coaching hires. Backroom arm-twisting hasn’t produced major changes, either. Black assistants acknowledge that there’s only so much Goodell can do.

The NFL’s hiring problem remains most acute at the club level — and owners now have another chance to show whether they’re interested in fixing it.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.