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Black head coaches still absent from the NFL’s inclusive hiring progress

Despite improvements in teams’ front offices, commissioner Roger Goodell says before Super Bowl ‘there’s better work and more work ahead of us’

PHOENIX – With only three Black head coaches in its 32-team league, the NFL continues to drop the ball on the matter of inclusive hiring in coaching.

It’s scoring in other areas of hiring at the club level, however.

During his pre-Super Bowl news conference Wednesday, commissioner Roger Goodell commented on gains made recently among general managers and team presidents – historically the highest-ranking positions in football and business operations, respectively – focusing on areas where the league can point to progress.

“Ultimately, it’s a tribute to the candidates and to our clubs really looking at their processes, and changing their processes to make sure they’re identifying the best talent,” Goodell said. “Our committees work really hard on the process to make sure that the processes are diverse in the slate of candidates, but also they worked really hard to slow the process down so clubs have a chance to make those decisions and to consider candidates that they may not have considered in the past.”

Goodell is entitled to crow a little.

It wasn’t until Aug. 17, 2020 – exactly one month before the NFL’s centennial – that the league hired its first Black team president: Jason Wright of the Washington Commanders. Today, the NFL has five Black team presidents, including its first Black female team president.

The Tennessee Titans recently hired Ran Carthon, formerly director of player personnel for the San Francisco 49ers, as their new general manager, making Carthon the league’s eighth Black general manager. Previously, the NFL never had more than seven African American general managers in one season.

What’s more, at the end of the 2018-19 season, Chris Grier, general manager of the Miami Dolphins, was the NFL’s only Black employee to occupy, traditionally, the most important executive position in football operations. Until 2022, the Commanders’ Wright stood alone among team presidents.

New Tennessee Titans general manager Ran Carthon speaks during a news conference on Jan. 20 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Mark Zaleski/AP Photo

Over the past few hiring cycles, the NFL has made significant progress in filling top roles in club leadership with highly qualified Black candidates.

Goodell was quick to point to leaguewide initiatives such as the accelerator program that have helped owners identify highly qualified minority candidates. Titans officials first became acquainted with Carthon through the accelerator program.

“A number of the things we implemented last year have proven to be a direct beneficiary of some of the changes that occurred,” Goodell said. “Our clubs as well as candidates get to know each other, and [team owners] get to understand the incredible talent that’s out there. We’re gonna continue that. Our commitment is stronger than that, but that’s just one.

“We had a number of other programs that we’ve put in that I think are gonna produce long-term results. Now, we all want short-term results, but it’s important to have it be sustainable for the future. And we believe diversity makes us stronger. It’s about attracting the best talent [and] giving ’em the opportunity to be successful. And to me, that’s at the core of what we do. We wanted the changes to be really fundamental, sound and sustainable.”

Even before the accelerator program was implemented, progress had occurred in front offices throughout the league.

In January 2020, the Cleveland Browns hired Andrew Berry as their general manager. Brown joined Grier, doubling the league’s number of Black general managers to two. Three Black general managers were hired during the 2020-21 cycle: Terry Fontenot of the Atlanta Falcons, Brad Holmes of the Detroit Lions and Martin Mayhew of the Commanders.

Two more Black general managers were hired during the previous cycle. The Chicago Bears turned to Ryan Poles, formerly executive director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Minnesota Vikings tapped Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, then vice president of football operations for the Cleveland Browns, to lead their football operation. Then the Titans’ hiring of Carthon established a new all-time mark.

New ground is broken with the hiring of each new team president.

Wright has been joined by Sashi Brown of the Baltimore Ravens, Sandra Douglass Morgan, the first Black female team president, of the Las Vegas Raiders, Damani Leech of the Denver Broncos and Kevin Warren of the Chicago Bears. Brown, Morgan and Leech were hired in 2022, while Warren was hired in January 2023 as Bears president and CEO.

It’s as if team owners suddenly realized that there’s no shortage of gifted Black folk to fill any number of high-ranking positions open in their organizations.

New Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans (right) answers questions as team owner Cal McNair (left) listens during a news conference formally announcing Ryans’ hiring on Feb. 2 in Houston.

Michael Wyke/AP Photo

For some time, Goodell has set a good example for his billionaire bosses.

In the league’s New York City headquarters, nine of the 17 highest-ranking officials in NFL football operations are Black. Eight of the nine have vice president-level titles or higher, and the group is led by a Black man: Troy Vincent, executive vice president.

To be sure, for proponents of diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring in the NFL, there has been some good news as of late.

Then there’s the rest of the story: At the coaching level, things still are unacceptable in a league in which Black or African American players account for 57.5% of NFL rosters. That number has been as high 70%. Fact is, the NFL is an overwhelmingly Black league, and many of its Black employees who aspire to become head coaches continue to have more doors slammed in their faces than opened.

For the NFL, the job is far from finished, Goodell said.

“We still feel like there’s better work and more work ahead of us,” he said. “There’s progress, and we’re pleased to see progress, but it’s never enough. We always look to sort of say, ‘How can we do better?’ ”

On Jan. 31, the Houston Texans hired former 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans as the team’s sixth head coach in franchise history and its third consecutive Black head coach. The Texans had an opening to fill because they sacked David Culley and Lovie Smith after one season each.

Not only do Black coaches receive fewer opportunities than their white counterparts to reach the top rung of the coaching ladder, many have told Andscape, but even if they do manage to beat the odds and get there, they get less time to prove themselves.

Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, hired Monday by the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator, and two other coaches have filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. The three allege that pro sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices of coaches. The poor numbers make it clear that something has gone wrong.

When it comes to general managers and team presidents, finally, the NFL is moving in a better direction. And if that ever happened in coaching as well, Goodell or one of his successors would have so much more to crow about.

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