NFL can point to progress in diverse hiring but work to be done in coaching
With just three Black head coaches among 32 teams, ‘it’s also fair to say that the league is at a bit of a crossroads now’
Although criticism of the NFL is justifiable for its poor record on hiring Black head coaches, there’s no argument that the league made significant gains last season in increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at the club level.
In the positions of team president and general manager, franchises have reached milestones in diverse hirings. The league now has five Black team presidents, including the first Black woman in the role. Eight Black men are general managers.
With the number of minority team presidents and general managers being the most in NFL history, the league signaled its intention to continuing pushing forward on this front recently, requiring each club to have a person in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion. For the league’s DEI proponents, the victories have added up, which pleases no one more than Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s bannerman in the ongoing struggle to make the league more inclusive from the front office to the field, Vincent, a Black man, is proud of the undeniable progress.
“While we still have work to be done, several milestones have been achieved and mountains have been moved,” Vincent wrote to Andscape in a text message. “The total body of work cannot be overlooked. Bottom line is that tremendous progress has been made and we continue to press forward.”
Likewise, Rod Graves, the executive director of the independent organization that advises NFL leaders on matters of diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring, sees a lot to like as well.
“I am very much impressed with those individuals who have been chosen recently [to become team presidents and general managers], but I really believe there are others out there who are equally capable and who are not even on the radar of many clubs,” Graves, who leads the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a phone interview.
“There are so many capable, talented individuals out there who could [fill positions throughout every facet of the NFL]. Those are the type of qualified individuals who deserve an opportunity. We’re looking to gain more exposure for those types of individuals, because they’re a big part of this story as well.”
As training camp kicked off this week, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and DeMeco Ryans of the Houston Texans are the league’s only Black head coaches among six minority head coaches overall. This always bears repeating: the NFL has 32 teams.
The lack of Black coaches, many Black NFL employees say, is unacceptable in a league in which Black or African American players accounted for 57.5% of NFL rosters during the 2022-23 season. In previous seasons, that number has been as high 70%. Fact is, the NFL is an overwhelmingly Black league. But many of its Black employees who aspire to become head coaches continue to have more doors slammed in their faces than opened.
Despite the league’s expansive approach in its move to increase diverse representation among its ranks – which now also includes the mandate of a DEI officer to direct each club’s plan – the NFL has never revealed hiring goals or timelines to reach them. Granted, the league is doing a lot these days in this area. But more can always be done, Graves said.
“It needs to start with a philosophy, a stated philosophy, that you can pin on the NFL that really addresses what we believe about fairness and diversity,” said Graves, formerly an NFL general manager and a senior vice president in the commissioner’s office. “And it needs to start with a statement that somehow encompasses the belief that the game belongs to everyone at all levels, from ownership on down.
“If you’re capable, if you’re qualified, if you meet the criteria for leadership and success, then you should have the opportunity, or at least be evaluated for that opportunity. And yet, there’s a feeling [among many Black NFL employees] that we’re not in a system that identifies and creates opportunities based on merit. There’s not a belief that … everyone will be nurtured to exhibit their full leadership ability. We don’t have that type of system in place today.”
Black NFL team presidents and general managers
Entering training camp, the league has five Black team presidents and eight Black general managers – the most ever in each position.
- Sashi Brown, Baltimore Ravens
- Sandra Douglass Morgan, Las Vegas Raiders
- Damani Leech, Denver Broncos
- Kevin Warren, Chicago Bears
- Jason Wright, Washington Commanders
- Andrew Berry, Cleveland Browns
- Ran Carthon, Tennessee Titans
- Terry Fontenot, Atlanta Falcons
- Chris Grier, Miami Dolphins
- Brad Holmes, Detroit Lions
- Martin Mayhew, Washington Commanders
The NFL wasn’t immune from the reckoning that occurred nationally on race and systemic oppression in 2020 after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin and three other former officers involved in Floyd’s murder were sentenced to prison.
After Floyd’s murder and the nationwide protests that ensued, the NFL and other big businesses committed to actively confront systemic racism. In the current polarized political climate in the United States, however, many social justice activists express concerns that corporate America’s commitment to reform is waning.
Will the NFL remain in the fight indefinitely? N. Jeremi Duru, for one, wonders.
A professor of sports law at American University and a longtime observer of the NFL’s hiring practices, Duru, too, acknowledges the NFL has made strides in diverse hiring, but also notes that opposition to inclusion is increasing exponentially in some parts of the nation.
“There have been gains in general manager, team president and in other realms of the league. And so in many regards, the last few years have seen an uptick with respect to equity and with respect to diversity. It’s also fair to say that the league is at a bit of a crossroads now,” said Duru, author of the definitive book on the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.
“When the summer of 2020 happened and the year that followed it, you saw organizations and entities [display] a great commitment to diversity. The question, though, was is this gonna be a moment or a movement. What we’ve seen more recently, pursuant to different state legislatures and other efforts, has been a substantial backtracking on kind of that short-lived commitment to really challenging systemic discrimination. Are we gonna continue pushing forward for true equity? Or are we gonna take our foot off the gas?”
Undoubtedly, that’s a key question for the NFL. And Black coaches, in particular, eagerly await the league’s answer.