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Black NFL executives and coaches sound off at town hall: ‘We just want a fair shot’

Minorities in football operations are calling for increased pressure on owners

MOBILE, Ala. — Infuriated about the deplorable state of inclusive hiring at the club level throughout the NFL, black executives and coaches are eager to support more aggressive measures in hope of spurring positive change, many said in a Fritz Pollard Alliance town hall meeting Tuesday.

During the well-attended forum in advance of the Senior Bowl here, the top officials of the independent group that advises the league on matters of diversity listened as minorities in football operations spoke passionately about the glaring lack of opportunity to advance within the game compared to their white colleagues. In response to pleas to increase pressure on owners to support truly fair hiring practices — as well as the alarming results of the past three hiring cycles — the alliance explained it plans to request that the league office again attempt to strengthen the Rooney Rule, and have every club develop and implement a comprehensive diversity plan for every job both in football and business operations.

Owners must be persuaded to believe, alliance officials said, that their ongoing failure to embrace inclusive hiring could eventually hurt the bottom line of professional sports’ most successful league. In the current situation, most in attendance agreed it definitely couldn’t hurt to push owners a whole lot harder than they have been to this point.

“This was good,” said Alonzo Highsmith, Cleveland Browns vice president of player personnel. “It was good to hear the perspective of African Americans in this business, and it’s good to hear that there’s a lot of caring and a lot of passion about what’s going on. I’ve been in this business for 22 years, and diversity does need to change in the NFL.”

Highsmith’s viewpoint is supported by the results of yet another hiring cycle in which only one head coach of color (Ron Rivera in Washington) was hired. In the past three cycles, there have been 20 head-coaching openings. Only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle. Entering the 2020 season, the 32-team league will have four head coaches of color. Meanwhile, the NFL currently has only one African American general manager: Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins.

The anger in the room was most palpable regarding the owners’ decisions to pass over Leslie Frazier and Eric Bieniemy, widely admired coordinators with the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, the past two cycles in favor of white coaches with lighter NFL resumes. The well-founded fear, several coaches said, is that if accomplished coaches such as Frazier, who led the Minnesota Vikings to one playoff appearance while serving as their head coach for three seasons, and Bieniemy, head coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense for the Super Bowl-bound Chiefs, aren’t being seriously considered to advance, what chance do they have of moving to the top rung of the coaching ladder? It’s a fair question, Cyrus Mehri said.

Mehri, co-founder of the alliance, said he believes that commissioner Roger Goodell and others in the league office are allies in the long-running fight for equality. The problem, Mehri said, is occurring above Goodell.

“What’s really clear, at this point, is that it’s not the league office. The league office has been fighting with us. It’s the owners,” Mehri said. “We have … spectacular candidates, and we still have decision-making [among owners] that’s irrational. I don’t want to pick on anybody, I really don’t, but it’s hard to justify [former Cleveland Browns head coach] Freddie Kitchens being hired and overlooking Eric Bieniemy.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in a huddle with quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (15) and Matt Moore (8).

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It’s hard to justify [Cincinnati Bengals head coach] Zac Taylor, and not Eric Bieniemy. It’s hard to justify how [Miami Dolphins assistant head coach] Jim Caldwell didn’t get an interview this time. It’s hard to justify Leslie Frazier not getting an interview. Look at the job he did in Buffalo with that defense. Look at the job he did as a playcaller, getting the most out of that defense.”

To hear Frazier tell it, finally clearing the obstacles that still block the path for coaches of color is much more important than what occurs individually with him and Bieniemy.

“The bigger issue, what [the alliance is] talking about, is how can you truly make things better in the future? How can minorities get legitimate opportunities?” Frazier said. “What you don’t want is in the next hiring cycle, if somebody gets an opportunity, that [owners say], ‘OK. We quieted them down now.’ So, yeah, then it’s quiet.

“But then the next cycle comes around, the next cycle begins, and we’re right back where we are today. That’s not what we want to happen, and we know that can happen. What we’re really talking about is the need for long-term solutions. So it’s not about Leslie Frazier and Eric Bieniemy. There are much bigger things that need to be delved into.”

After the session ended, many executives and coaches lingered in the room, continuing to discuss their desire to just work on an even playing field — or at least something closer to even than exists now.

“No one wants to be given anything,” said Morocco Brown, Indianapolis Colts director of college scouting. “‘No one is saying that just because we don’t have [many people of color] in these positions, we should be handed something. No. We just want an opportunity … to be given a fair shot.”

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