Jack Del Rio’s comments the latest symptom of the NFL’s ongoing culture problem
The Washington Commanders’ defensive coordinator isn’t the only figure of power who continues to counteract the league’s attempts at progress on race
With Washington Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio apologizing in front of the team on Tuesday in the wake of his Jan. 6 and George Floyd comments, the NFL has yet another example of its struggle to achieve a more inclusive league.
On its face, it would appear that Washington took significant action against Del Rio in levying a six-figure fine against him and likely strongly suggesting it would be a good idea for him to get off Twitter (he deleted his account). Commanders head coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday that Del Rio’s apology was “well-received.”
A closer examination of the matter, however, reveals that the Commanders failed to impose appropriate punishment.
For many people, obviously, a $100,000 fine would be crushing. But Del Rio made millions as the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and then-Oakland Raiders. He’s still gonna eat.
Future Hall of Famer Ed Reed emphasized this point on Twitter in urging Washington to take a tougher stance with Del Rio. “Today, I’m sick and tired!” Reed posted in the message. “A dust up! 100,000 is not enough, money ain’t nothing to a person who is recycled through coaching.”
At minimum, based on Del Rio’s past actions, the situation called for a fine and a lengthy suspension.
When initially questioned by reporters about some of Del Rio’s comments, Rivera declined to respond specifically. After huddling with other members of team owner Daniel M. Snyder’s brain trust, Rivera came out strongly against the false equivalency drawn by his top lieutenant on defense.
A staff meeting shouldn’t have been a prerequisite for the head of the Commanders’ football operation to understand he needed to make the organization’s position clear immediately. That’s exactly the type of leadership that has left the franchise rudderless for a generation.
Rivera had losing records his first two seasons in Washington and enters his third relying on quarterback Carson Wentz, who was dumped by two organizations in as many offseasons. Now, Rivera must keep a watchful eye on his defensive coordinator, who despite being off Twitter is still highly capable of putting his foot in his mouth whenever he meets with reporters weekly.
Good luck with that. But in the NFL, Del Rio is not alone. And as long as that’s the case, the league won’t get to where commissioner Roger Goodell hopes to take it. Del Rio is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem throughout the NFL.
After superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes and other top-tier Black NFL players in 2020 challenged club owners and powerful league officials to reevaluate their wrongheaded thinking on the protest movement ignited in 2016 by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the league increased its social justice footprint amid other efforts to show it erred and strives to do better. In response to the leaguewide hiring crises at the club level, the NFL has recently enacted a number of measures intended to increase diversity from the front office to the field.
Since former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores alleged in a lawsuit which seeks class-action status that professional sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices, Goodell has acknowledged the NFL must “do a better job,” adding that “What we have to do … is step back and say, ‘We’re not doing a good enough job here.’ We need to find better solutions and better outcomes.”
However, whenever the Del Rios of the NFL open their mouths – and there are many like him who just don’t get it – we’re provided with another reminder that the league, despite Goodell’s best intentions, has made relatively little progress on matters of race since Mahomes and other Black players pushed for substantive change. Clearly, the NFL still has a culture problem.
Back in 2017, during a meeting of owners and players to discuss the NFL protest movement, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” McNair, weighing in on players who are overwhelmingly Black using their platform to shine a light on racial injustice, made the worst analogy in the history of analogies, for which he quickly apologized.
In a 24-hour period in June 2020, current and former Black NFL officials blasted then-Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio for saying he doesn’t “see racism at all in the NFL.” Then, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees essentially told Fangio to hold his beer when the future Hall of Famer ignited a firestorm across the sports landscape by reaffirming his stance that he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.” Fangio and Brees, who retired after the 2021 season, later apologized.
Notice a common thread?
An NFL club owner, a head coach, a top assistant coach, who was formerly a head coach, and a face-of-a-franchise passer. McNair, Fangio, Del Rio and Brees, respectively, all followed the playbook, walking back racially insensitive/offensive comments under pressure. But their actions undercut the narrative from the commissioner’s office that the league is committed to meaningful, positive change on matters of race.
When so many people in power show who they are, the public should believe them.
The NFL is an overwhelmingly Black league – in 2020, Black or African American players accounted for 57.5% of players on NFL rosters, and the number has been as high as 69.7%. Yet, people such as McNair, Fangio, Del Rio and Brees either wielded or still wield enormous power in hiring and influencing the directions of clubs. Before joining Rivera’s staff in Washington, Del Rio was an NFL head coach for 12 years.
The comments made by those four are examples of the thinking throughout the league. Trust us on this: There are many more made daily that haven’t come to light.