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The NFL’s inclusive hiring efforts need to pay off

As hiring cycle begins with Las Vegas Raiders shakeup, league must hire more Black coaches

The Las Vegas Raiders’ firing Tuesday of coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler marked the beginning of the NFL’s next hiring cycle – the most important in the history of a league that has been building toward this moment for years.

Repeatedly recently, the NFL moved to strengthen the Rooney Rule. For the first time, it implemented hiring mandates in coaching and the front office with an eye toward improving diversity, equity and inclusion at the club level. And the league even established a meet-and-greet program to put team owners in the same room with their minority employees who aspire to climb the corporate ladder.

There’s no debating it: Proponents of inclusive hiring in the commissioner’s office have walked the talk. Soon, the results of their efforts will be judged.

Although the two high-profile openings in Las Vegas are the first of this hiring cycle, they won’t be the last. Count on it.

Las Vegas Raiders president Sandra Douglass Morgan (left) and senior vice president and chief of staff Marcel Reece (right) talk on the team’s sideline before a game against the Denver Broncos at Allegiant Stadium on Oct. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When all the openings have been filled after the regular season, will the league have moved closer to its aspirational hiring outlook? Or will it remain stuck in place?

N. Jeremi Duru is among many longtime observers of the NFL’s hiring practices who are awaiting answers.

A professor of sports law at American University, Duru wrote 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. The importance of the results of this hiring cycle, Duru said, cannot be understated.

“Without question, it’s a really, really, big year for the NFL and the hiring cycle when it comes to trying to see the sort of growth and sort of gains that the league has been articulating we’re gonna see,” Duru said in a phone interview Thursday.

“As a consequence of the improvements of the Rooney Rule, as a consequence of the other equal opportunity initiatives, initiatives directed directly at coaching, I know the NFL is hoping to see gains. And everybody interested in this issue, certainly the community of color, is hoping to see gains.”

During the past few cycles, the NFL has made gains in the positions of team president and general manager. In those jobs, franchises have reached milestones in diverse hiring. The league now has five Black club presidents, including Raiders president Sandra Douglass Morgan, the first Black woman in that role. Eight Black men are general managers.

On the club hiring front, that’s good news.

But here’s the rest of the story: The NFL has 32 teams and only three Black head coaches. The inequity in coaching remains a black eye on pro sports’ most successful and powerful league.

After each hiring cycle, representatives of the commissioner’s office and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent organization that advises NFL leaders on diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring, meet at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis to review what occurred and plan ahead. Over the past few years, as previously noted, the sides have become more proactive in an effort to increase the numbers of qualified minorities in top-rung positions.

The hope is that the number of diverse hires grows steadily as a result of franchise owners encountering more talented minorities in the hiring pipeline. One could argue that the hiring environment the commissioner’s office has created resulted in the recent gains in team president and general manager.

Franchise owners, however, view head coaches differently.

Las Vegas Raiders linebackers coach Antonio Pierce yells to players during the second half of the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Aug. 4, 2022, in Canton, Ohio.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

They’re the face of the football operation. Some are as recognizable as superstar players. And the fact is, club owners rarely hire Black men to fill those positions.

For the league to claim progress after this hiring cycle, the number of Black head coaches must increase. After everything the NFL has done to address its coaching crises, it’s that simple.

Raiders owner Mark Davis elevated linebackers coach Antonio Pierce to be the team’s interim head coach. Assistant general manager Champ Kelly will serve as the Raiders’ interim general manager. Both men are African American.

Pierce, a former NFL linebacker, was only in his second season as an NFL position coach. Before joining the Raiders, he spent five seasons coaching at Arizona State. Likewise, Kelly is in his second season with the Raiders, who have committed to undergoing “a comprehensive search” for a head coach and general manager “once the season is complete.”

Whether Pierce and Kelly will be included in that process remains to be seen. The Raiders’ roster is a hot mess. The team has lost consecutive games, is 3-5 and tied for last in the AFC West. To say the least, a major turnaround would be surprising.

But perhaps Pierce and Kelly will impress Davis. Neither was in position, Duru said, to reject Davis’ offer.

“You’re happy for Antonio Pierce and Kelly to get the opportunity, but they’re walking into really challenging circumstances,” Duru said. “Most observers would say the club is not very strong. There are challenges across the roster.

“For them to step into that situation and have success … it’s going to be tough. And the real concerning thing is that if they don’t have success, based on what we know about the opportunities of Black coaches and general managers [historically], it’s much harder to get future opportunities. Again, this cycle is going to be big. It really is.”

The NFL has done the work. We’re about to learn if it will pay off.

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