In the NFL’s coaching ranks, equality is still but a dream
The promised land is nowhere in sight as Black NFL assistants are still too often judged on the color of their skin
After yet another disappointing NFL hiring cycle, frustrated Black assistant coaches are no closer to reaching the mountaintop.
It’s always in vogue for league officials to invoke the words of Martin Luther King Jr., especially during Black History Month, but make no mistake: By repressing the careers of coaches who merely strive to compete on a level playing field, NFL owners writ large have reinforced the systemic oppression that the late civil rights icon spent much of his life fighting.
By now, the 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 past four cycles, there have been 27 openings. During that span, three Black men became head coaches. In the 32-team NFL, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, David Culley of the Houston Texans, hired in January after serving as the Baltimore Ravens’ assistant head coach and wide receivers coach, and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins (who is Afro Latino) are the only Black coaches in the league. Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team is Latino.
Additionally, the New York Jets 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, in January. 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 is more than 70% Black – you know what the aforementioned numbers are? Unacceptable.
During his annual Super Bowl state-of-the-NFL news conference Thursday, commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the ongoing efforts he has led to improve inclusive hiring from the front office to the field. Clearly, Goodell and his top lieutenants still have plenty of wood to chop.
“We want to make the NFL, our clubs, more diverse. It’s much broader than just head coaches for us,” Goodell said. “But the head coaches is important, and we put a lot of our policies and focus on that this year. As you know, we had two minority coaches hired this year. But it wasn’t what we expected, and it’s not what we expect going forward. We want to continue to look and see what went right, what went wrong.”
What’s particularly offensive to outsiders who closely monitor the hiring situation is that after Goodell, Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, and Steelers team president Art Rooney II, chairman of the NFL’s diversity workplace committee, spent the previous offseason attacking the problem, owners (who are mostly white), through their collective actions, told them to go spit, figuratively speaking. According to N. Jeremi Duru, who wrote the definitive book on the leaguewide rule that governs hiring for both top business and football operations positions, there’s no other way to view it.
“I’m deeply disappointed. I’m deeply disappointed because the NFL, the league [office] spent the offseason truly committed to this issue and, in the end, the owners didn’t seem to move the needle in response to the NFL’s commitment,” said Duru, who chronicled the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule in Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. “The league office is moving in the right direction. The problem, it seems, are the individual clubs.”
At the position of general manager, Goodell, Vincent and Rooney can point to signs of progress. Three Black general managers were hired during the 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). A significant breakthrough also occurred in business operations at the club level. In August, Jason Wright became the NFL’s first Black team president, taking control of Washington before the league’s 101st season kicked off.
Although Vincent, Goodell’s bannerman in the ongoing fight, concedes the league cannot claim victory because of a handful of positive developments, he said those moves shouldn’t be ignored, either.
“While the football hiring season didn’t produce the results everyone had hoped for regarding the head coaches, the overall body of work demonstrated clear progress,” Vincent told The Undefeated. “There are wins on which to build. … We have to acknowledge the significance, the progress, of Terry, Brad and Martin [being hired].”
Furthermore, Vincent continued, there are encouraging signs at the coordinator level. Former Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, ousted in January, was hired to direct the Lions’ offense. And one-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris, who guided the Falcons to a 4-7 record this season as their interim head coach, will be the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator next season.
“Would we have liked to have seen Raheem become a head coach again? Yes. And the same thing with Coach Lynn. We would have liked to have seen both of them have other [head-coaching opportunities] just like some of their [white] peers,” Vincent said. “But they’re both coordinators. That’s significant, because we have to keep in mind that the fall for Black coaches has [historically] been so steep” after being fired as head coaches. “Having our first [club] president … that’s significant. I’m not waving the victory flag. Not by any stretch. But there are things that should be pointed out.”
Vincent also wants it known that despite optics to the contrary, there are owners interested in doing the right thing regarding hiring. Those on the other side of the table roundly praise Goodell as being an ally in the battle, but “there are club owners who are allies as well,” Vincent insists. “Roger gets singled out, yes, but let me tell you that Kim Pegula [one of the principal owners of the Buffalo Bills along with her husband Terry Pegula] has jumped on the table as well. I’ve seen [Arizona Cardinals owner] Michael Bidwill, [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank and chairman Rooney voice their displeasure over the years. The generalization that none [of the owners] care and it’s just not important to any of them … it’s just not true.”
That established, despite the best efforts of Goodell and others, the numbers remain the problem. So now what?
“It’s not clear what more the league office can do about it. The league has pushed the buttons that it feels it can push and the owners haven’t responded,” Duru, the author of Advancing The Ball, said. “So if something is going to be done about it, it’s got to be done by other stakeholders. And by other stakeholders, I mean players expressing their views strongly, and individual head-coaching aspirants who have been frozen out for some time taking action.”
Which could be best described as the nuclear option for the league’s Black assistant coaches. For many reasons, it would be highly difficult for them to successfully litigate against the league office, including the fact that many acknowledge privately Goodell and those under him have taken significant steps in an effort to change the landscape. As for going after the individual clubs, pursuing such a strategy would likely be fraught with danger for anyone who tried. Just ask former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took on the NFL in court and hasn’t been under center since.
If there’s a will, though, there could be a way, said Susan D. Carle, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law.
“It would certainly be possible to sue one or more teams. And what you need, sort of in the tradition of civil rights litigation, you just need one test case,” said Carle, an expert in discrimination, labor and employment law. “Once you make a good case against one team, the other teams are going to look around and say, ‘Oh, wow, we better pay attention to what we’re doing here,’ and then change their ways.
“What used to happen in those early civil rights cases, and current ones, too, is that you would have a plaintiff, a test person, who’s willing to apply and then be rejected. And then that person, with the support of a civil rights organization, would file a lawsuit and say they were discriminated against, and show why. Now, you’d have to have some theory there. … You couldn’t just make allegations without facts to support the allegations. But if you could do that, if you could make a case that would survive a motion to dismiss, that would be the basis for making a case and possibly settling.”
Of course, any Black coach who participated in such a lawsuit would effectively end his or her career, Carle acknowledged.
“Early civil rights plaintiffs … their careers were ruined, they were vilified and they were put in physical danger. No one is expecting that a coach would want to go through that in this day and age,” she said. “But just having one person who wanted to step forward and say, ‘I’m gonna put my name on a lawsuit that says this was discrimination,’ that would be the key.”
Vincent, the high-ranking league executive, will keep pushing in his lane.
“The club owners who are allies … we’ve got to help move them into the majority,” he said. “We’ve just got to continue doing the work.”
For more than 400 years in America, Black folk have worked arduously in hopes of one day reaching the promised land. But as Black NFL assistants can attest, getting there is still only but a dream.