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Roger Goodell’s commitment to diversity in the NFL is not enough

The commissioner wants to see change, but does he have the power?

MIAMI — To hear NFL employees of color tell it, the deplorable state of inclusive hiring at the club level has created a leaguewide problem. Commissioner Roger Goodell won’t push back on that assessment.

“Clearly,” Goodell said during his annual state of the league news conference here at the Super Bowl, “we are not where we want to be.”

Well, at least not where Goodell and many of his top lieutenants in the league office want to be. How most of Goodell’s employers view things is another matter. And that, of course, remains the underlying problem for those who champion the cause of increased diversity in the NFL.

Leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of inclusive hiring, insist that Goodell is an ally in the ongoing battle to bolster diversity from the front office to the field. However, here’s the question: Is he a powerful one?

The reality is Goodell is an employee of the billionaire owners who control the NFL. Granted, Goodell, by any standard in this universe, is a spectacularly well-compensated employee. It’s just there’s only so much he can do.

Goodell needs much more buy-in from the people who pay his big salary. Without it, the change Goodell insists he wants doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of occurring.

Goodell acknowledged he’s still in the information-gathering stage. Meetings have been scheduled this month to review the NFL policies that are supposed to foster a more inclusive hiring culture, such as the Rooney Rule. Everyone has noticed: They’re not working.

Consider what occurred during the hiring cycle completed this week. Of the five head coaching openings, only one went to a coach of color. Ron Rivera switched jobs, joining Washington’s NFL franchise after being fired by the Carolina Panthers. The 2019-20 cycle marked the third consecutive one in which only one coach of color was hired. During that span, there were 20 openings. Entering the 2020 season, the NFL will have only four head coaches of color.

The cycle was capped by some encouraging news this week, with the number of African American general managers doubling — to two. The Cleveland Browns hired Andrew Berry as their new general manager and executive vice president of football operations on Monday. Berry joins Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins as currently the only black men to occupy traditionally the most powerful seat in football operations.

Goodell works for a league that, in its 100th season, still hasn’t had a black team president. Heck, the United States has had one.

“We need change and to do something different,” Goodell said. “There’s no reason to expect we’re going to have a different outcome next year without those kinds of changes.”

During the volley of questions from reporters at the Hilton Miami Downtown hotel, Goodell reaffirmed that he gets it. No one needs to tell him that 70% of the league’s players are black. He’s aware that executives and coaches of color are frustrated about the lack of opportunity for advancement compared with their white colleagues. And considering the racial makeup of the on-field workforce, Goodell understands why many believe it’s unacceptable that so few black leaders have reached the top rung of the ladder in coaching, football operations and business operations.

“We believe that diversity makes us better as a league,” he said.

Goodell intends to continue working across the table in good faith, seeking solutions to the growing diversity problem. As is evident once again, though, that’s simply not enough.

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