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Fritz Pollard Alliance hopes town hall meeting will offer solutions to NFL coaching crisis

Executive director Rod Graves says the current hiring system is flawed

MOBILE, Ala. – Continuing the discussion about the NFL’s abysmal record on inclusive hiring, the independent group that advises the league on matters of diversity will hold a town hall meeting Tuesday in advance of the Senior Bowl.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, alarmed about the results of yet another hiring cycle in which coaches of color were largely shut out of the process, organized the forum last week in an effort to amplify the voices of those whose careers have been most negatively impacted by the owners’ decisions. Annually, NFL general managers, coaches, player-personnel officials and scouts attend the weeklong practices and all-star game here to evaluate players who have completed their college eligibility. With so many employees of color scheduled to be in town – and things bleak regarding their potential advancement within the league – the leader of the Fritz Pollard Alliance said it’s time to brainstorm about what to do next.

“This is an effort to involve all of the stakeholders, and especially the stakeholders who are the most truly affected in the workplace by the results of the last hiring cycle, as well as future employment decisions, in this discussion,” Rod Graves, the group’s executive director, said on the phone. “This will be an opportunity for them to talk about their concerns, to share their ideas and, hopefully, offer solutions that can be considered in the process. They need to be heard – and we need change.”

During the recently completed cycle, only one head coach of color was hired: Ron Rivera, who joined Washington’s NFL franchise after being fired by the Carolina Panthers late in the regular season. Entering the 2020 season, the league will have four head coaches of color, the same as this season. During the past three cycles, there have been 20 head coach openings. Only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle. The view from the front office is even whiter. The NFL, which is celebrating its 100th season, has never had an African American team president.

At the direction of Graves, who formerly served as both an NFL general manager and a high-ranking official in the league office, the Fritz Pollard Alliance plans to call on the league to formally expand the Rooney Rule beyond head coaches and general managers. What’s more, the group also wants the NFL to mandate that more than one diverse candidate be interviewed for all the positions covered under the rule. The Rooney Rule, in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, states that an NFL team must interview at least one candidate of color for those jobs. While there’s no doubt that the rule — named after Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — has had a positive overall impact on the NFL’s culture, it has outlived its usefulness, even despite recently being strengthened.

Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, the son of the man whom the rule is named after and the current chairman of the diversity committee, recently told the NFL Network that the league “is not where we want to be, not where we need to be. We need to take a step back and look at what’s happening with our hiring processes.”

“The first thing we’ll do, as part of our diversity committee, is really review this past season’s hiring cycle and make sure we understand what went on and talk to the people involved both on the owners’ side, management’s side as well as the people that were interviewed. … We need to study what’s going on and understand better what’s going on and really decide how we improve the situation.”

On improving the situation, Graves couldn’t agree more.

“What we’ve recognized, not only this year but in past years, is that the current system of employing coaches, scouts and front-office personnel is not a fair system,” Graves said. “Whether we call it the good ol’ boy system or the network system, it’s a flawed system. And let me point out that many of us have been hired through that system. But it just does not work out enough in favor of minorities.”

Each year at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, officials from the alliance and the league office meet to discuss the previous hiring cycle and propose recommendations for the future. The dearth of minority coordinators, especially on offense, figures to be a major topic of discussion. During an era in which owners prefer to pick from the offensive side of the ball to fill the top coaching vacancies, the league’s offensive coordinators are, in effect, head coaches in waiting. Byron Leftwich of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL’s only black offensive coordinators — and Leftwich is the only one of the two who has primary play-calling duties.

In the past two hiring cycles, however, it has been made clear that coaches of color face more hurdles to advancement than merely reaching the coordinator level.

During the cycle following the 2018 season, the Cincinnati Bengals hired former Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. The Arizona Cardinals hired failed former college head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Then in this season’s cycle, the New York Giants hired former New England Patriots wide receivers coach Joe Judge. Coordinators of color are being passed over, often, by coaches who haven’t attained their rank in the NFL, highlighting that the league’s systemic hiring problem is worsening.

“We need to examine this and find a better way,” Graves said. “The times demand it, our industry demands it and the game deserves it.”

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