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NFL owners couldn’t care less about inclusive hiring, and it shows

For the third year in a row, only one minority coach was hired for a top job

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Across the NFL, signs should be posted at team headquarters that read, “Coaches of color will rarely receive serious consideration for head coaching positions.” Although such notices would merely be stating the obvious, at least minority coaches would officially know where they stand.

Some are trying to maintain hope that owners will someday change their wrongheaded thinking and judge them on the content of their coaching, rather than the color of their skin. Most, however, won’t hold their breath. After only one coach of color filled a vacancy for the third time in as many hiring cycles, the message is clear: For the NFL’s top jobs, white is right.

Need more proof? Look no further than the case of Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in a huddle with quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (15) and Matt Moore (8).

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Sunday, Bieniemy played a major role in the Chiefs reaching the AFC championship game for the second time in his two seasons as head coach Andy Reid’s top lieutenant on offense. Last season, Kansas City led the league in both total yards and points scored. This season, the Chiefs topped the AFC in passing yards and finished second in the conference in scoring. Superstar third-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes – the 2018 Associated Press NFL MVP – has praised Bieniemy for aiding in his development, and the two coaches who previously held the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator position under Reid – Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, respectively – quickly moved on to become head coaches.

Yet for the second time in two hiring cycles, Bieniemy was shut out while white coaches with much lighter resumes (new New York Giants head coach Joe Judge immediately comes to mind) continued to climb the ladder.

“I’m big-time partial here, because I know. I’m with him every day, so I know how good he is,” Reid said on Sunday regarding Bieniemy. “We were all pulling for him: players, coaches … because we understand his value. I said before, ‘Somebody’s loss is our gain if he’s still here.’ But I know he’d be a great head coach. I know that.”

Rod Graves, the first-year executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion and assists the league in enforcing the Rooney Rule, expressed frustration that respected coaches such as Bieniemy, Miami Dolphins assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards and others were left on the sidelines. Again.

“The clubs have the right to do whatever they feel is appropriate for their teams. I respect that,” Graves said on the phone. “But what’s troubling is that there are so many guys who are among the best coaches in the league, and they’re just not involved in this interview process. They’ve been totally excluded from the process. That’s troubling.”

Entering the 2020 season, the 32-team league will have four head coaches of color, the same as this season. Ron Rivera changed teams on the list: Fired by the Carolina Panthers late in the regular season, Rivera was quickly hired by Washington’s NFL franchise. Rivera will have decision-making power uncommon for a coach in the league, which is noteworthy, but also shines a light on another problem for minorities during the hiring process: The NFL, which is celebrating its 100th season, has never had an African American team president.

Kevin Warren, formerly the league’s highest-ranking African American in business operations while serving as chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, left in June to become the Big Ten commissioner. At the end of the 2016 season, the NFL had seven black general managers. Now, Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins is the only African American in that role. Tony Wyllie, formerly the highest-ranking African American in public relations at the team level when he was a senior vice president with Washington, left in September for a president’s position with the Special Olympics.

Get the picture? For people of color in the NFL who aspire to run their own shops, it’s a demoralizing one.

Graves and others who push for positive change believe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continues to work across the table from them in good faith. “Roger recognizes that this is an issue,” Graves said. “I believe he is committed to helping the league resolve it.” Of course, Goodell is merely a league employee (albeit a spectacularly compensated employee). The billionaires for whom Goodell works determine who will be hired as team presidents, head coaches and executives in football and business operations. “The owners must embrace this as an issue that’s in the best interests of the league,” said Graves, formerly both an NFL general manager and a high-ranking official in the league office. “Unless they do, we’re not going to see, for the most part, any substantial changes.”

Moreover, the main tool supposedly being used to spur inclusion needs to be replaced.

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. Bottom line, if the next white guy tapped to fill a vacancy is reviewing the roster and hiring assistants while staying in an owner’s guest house for days, it doesn’t matter if teams go through the motions with a candidate of color simply to comply with the rule.

One option would be for coaches of color to pursue litigation. Remember: The league only capitulated and instituted the Rooney Rule because it faced the threat of legal action.

Susan D. Carle, a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law, said coaches and executives of color have a case given how poorly things have trended for a good stretch now. The data suggests something is occurring that’s not random.

“I couldn’t promise they would win, but they sure would put on a good case that one would expect to shake up the NFL,” said Carle, an expert in discrimination, labor and employment law. “You have a pattern of a lot of cases [of candidates of color not being hired to fill positions], and they all seem to have to do with one feature of the people who don’t get the jobs: They all have to do with race. That’s some strong evidence.”

The fact that the league has only one black general manager and that only one head coach of color has been hired during the past three cycles (there have been 20 head coaching openings during that span) is what Carle finds most striking.

“[Retired Supreme Court associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor] used to write that when the numbers get close to the inexorable zero, when you’re close to zero, you’ve got to wonder,” Carle said. “That is strong evidence that something is going on that’s invidious and discriminatory. One [general manager] is pretty close to zero. And, as I understand it, one person of color a year [among head coaches] gets hired, and nobody else, even though there is a bunch of other qualified people.”

Although there appears to be sound legal ground for coaches of color to pursue a remedy in the courts, for a practical matter, there would be major risks for any coaches who joined forces in suing the league. As one NFL assistant told me recently, “We have families to feed. We can’t afford for our careers to end.”

With a lawsuit highly unlikely at this time, and there having been no support among NFL owners to be restricted, they believe, by hiring guidelines that would increase minority representation throughout their clubs, it’s now unclear whether things will ever change. When the NFL viewed the protest movement as a threat to its bottom line, owners provided a financial incentive to players to end their demonstrations during the national anthem. For owners, fixing the NFL’s hiring problem isn’t a know-how issue. It’s a want-to issue.

“Unfortunately,” Graves said, “there has to be a public outcry or some financial impact, oftentimes, for there to be a dramatic change.”

In the absence of such an outcry from their fan base – well, at least from the part of the fan base that matters to the NFL – owners, through their actions, have made it known they couldn’t care less about truly inclusive hiring.

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