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New study: Minority coaches still fare worse during NFL hiring process

Research shows African Americans don’t get the same coaching opportunites

African Americans and other minorities don’t have the same opportunities as white people to become head coaches in the NFL or get rehired after leaving a head coaching position, according to a recent working paper.

While the 2003 enactment of the league’s overhauled hiring guidelines and mandates, dubbed the “Rooney Rule,” have led to more coaches of color leading teams on a yearly basis, researchers found that minorities still fare worse when it comes to hiring, retaining their positions and being granted “second chances” at head positions.

The working paper, which studied the race, prior experience and future experience for head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators over 10 years (2009 through 2018), was conducted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University along with the Paul Robeson Research Center for Innovative Academic & Athletic Prowess at the University of Central Florida College of Business.

In 2002, lawyers Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran Jr. threatened to sue the NFL after releasing a report that found that, while in a 15-year span black coaches were statistically more successful than white coaches, head coach hiring practices did not reflect that. At the time, Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards were the sole black coaches in the league.

Within eight years of the Rooney Rule’s enactment, the 2011 season saw a record seven black head coaches (not including Mel Tucker, Todd Bowles and Crennel, who all took over in interim capacities). The researchers found that before the guidelines were enacted in 2003, the league averaged 2.23 coaches of color per season; after the 2003 season it jumped to 3.76.

(One of the study’s limitations was lumping all persons of color together. Then-Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, had been the lone non-black minority head coach in the NFL since 1994 and has been counted in that average since being hired in 2011.)

Scott N. Brooks, an associate professor at Arizona State University and the director of research at the Global Sport Institute, said this increase in black head coaches in the NFL can partly be attributed to the increase in black head coaches at the collegiate level, specifically the Power 5 conferences, and the visibility that brings to nontraditional-looking coaches.

“We know that professional sports teams are really PR places, so if the public doesn’t know about them then, it is harder for [NFL teams] to hire them,” Brooks said. “Particularly when you know you’re not the default, you’re not a white male coach.”

That being said, Brooks invokes the racialized organization theory — which argues that corporations are racialized structures that center whiteness as the default — to make sense of going from 10 black head coaches in 2011 to the mass exodus of five black coaches during and after the 2018 season that left the league with just three black head coaches to start the 2019 season: Mike Tomlin, Anthony Lynn, Brian Flores. The NFL can force teams to interview minority candidates, Brooks argues, but it can’t change the stereotypes and stigma surrounding African Americans and other people of color.

Vance Joseph (left) and Steve Wilks (right) were fired by the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, last season.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

“We can legislate behavior, we can make people have to do certain things, but we cannot in fact change mind-sets,” he said. “That’s always been the difficult thing with any integration, any diversity inclusion movement, is you can legislate things, but you can’t change people’s hearts.”

One of the main issues with the lack of diversity in hiring is the supposed coordinator-to-head coach “pipeline.” The paper found that offensive-minded coordinators are more likely than defensive-minded coordinators to obtain head coaching positions. Since 2009, nearly 40% of head coaches hired were former offensive coordinators and at least 77% of those offensive coordinators each season were white. During the 2010, 2011 and 2016 hiring seasons, every newly hired offensive coordinator was white; and since 2009, 91% of offensive coordinator hires have been white. The past two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich and Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy were the lone nonwhite offensive coordinator hires.

Coaches of color also don’t have the same opportunities to become head coaches or get another head coaching job in the future — the aforementioned “second chances.” The paper found that after leaving a head coaching position, 14% of white coaches were hired as head coaches again the following season compared with just 7% of coaches of color. For black head coaches, specifically, of the 11 who were hired since the 2009 season, eight have been fired; Hue Jackson, who was hired and fired by both the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns during that time period, was the lone black coach to be hired for another head coaching position at any time after the firing. On the flip side, white head coaches Adam Gase, John Fox (twice), Chip Kelly, Pat Shurmur, Mike Mularkey (twice), Bruce Arians and Doug Marrone were all rehired as head coaches after leaving previous head coaching positions between 2009 and 2018. In the last decade, no team has hired back-to-back head coaches of color. (The only time in history a black head coach succeeded another black head coach was when Jim Caldwell took over for Dungy in Indianapolis following the 2008 season.)

Minority coaches also have “substantially” shorter head coaching tenures than whites, the paper found. That matches up with data from ESPN’s Luke Knox, who found that for coaches with tenures of five or fewer seasons and a winning record, black head coaches averaged 2.2 seasons while white coaches lasted 3.2 seasons. A 2019 analysis by The Undefeated found that minority coaches are more likely (52.4% to 28.7%) than whites to be on the “hot seat,” an ESPN metric that measures the likelihood of a coach being fired for going 4-12 based on a number of factors. A 2004 study by researcher Janice Fanning Madden found that black head coaches historically win one more additional game per season than white coaches, yet the Global Sport Institute paper found that outgoing black coaches (four years) have shorter coaching tenures than whites (4.18 years).

“The findings of the study are not surprising, and it shows that there’s been some progress and there’s more work to be done,” said N. Jeremi Duru, counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA), a nonprofit organization that promotes diverse hiring practices in the NFL. “Our role at the FPA is to make sure we stay on top of everybody at the league and at the clubs to do that additional work, to be proactive and intentional about diversity and inclusion. I think it’s really important that clubs be about it and don’t think about it once a year when the hiring cycle comes around.”

The paper cautions that due to a small sample size — along with the race variable being a combination of different minority groups (“coaches of color”), and the muddled picture of how coaches are hired or fired (which opportunities they turn down and how salaries and interviews affect candidacies) — these findings may not tell a complete picture. The authors recommend that future research be done to collect more data to test statistical significance of the findings and expand the research to include more sports and more forms of discrimination.

The researchers recommend monitoring what’s being done in the NFL to diversify coaching positions and what needs to be done on the macro (organizations) and micro (individual relationships) levels that impact hiring decisions.

Other findings include:

  • Black coaching candidates are also held to a higher standard when it comes to prior football backgrounds: 100% of the head coaches of color hired since 2009 had previous playing experience in college and/or professional leagues compared with 91% of white head coaches.
  • Twelve teams (Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins) have not hired a head coach of color since 2009, though the Ravens, Cowboys, Patriots and Saints all had head coaches who were hired before 2009 and never left their position.
  • Four teams (Cowboys, Rams, Patriots, Saints) have not hired a head coach, offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator of color since 2009. (Flores never had the official title of “defensive coordinator” while with the Patriots.)
  • White head coaches are hired at younger ages than coaches of color: The average age of black head coaches hired was 51.2 years compared with 48.4 years for white coaches.

Liner Notes

Correction: A previous version of this story listed the record number of Black head coaches as nine.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"