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nfl purges majority of black coaches

January 3, 2019

It’s hardly surprising that the racial woes plaguing the NFL don’t end on the field. The Jim Crow of sports fired 8 coaches on Black Monday — the Monday following the last Sunday of the season when coach firings take place — of which, 5 were Black and 3 were white. Of the 32 head coaches in the NFL, 8 were people color comprised of 7 Black men and one Hispanic man, while 70 percent of the league is comprised of Black players. The firing of the 8 coaches leaves a quarter of the head coach positions up for grabs, building tension around whether the incoming coaches will make up for the considerable representation lost to Black Monday according to the New York Times.

It may surprise some to know that the NFL actually has an official policy to encourage diverse hiring within the coaching ranks of the organization called the “Rooney Rule”, named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who pushed for the regulation. The firing of the Black coaches may seem justified under NFL policy of “win or go home” when considering the stats of the coaches but what their departure speaks to is an inefficacy of the “Rooney Rule”, which still has support from equality interest groups within the NFL. That being said, the “Rooney Rule” only mandates that minority candidates be interviewed, not hired and in a league where 70 percent of the players are Black, the whiteness of the senior staff is bound to get more attention.

Cyrus Mehri, the founder of Fritz Pollard Alliance (advocates for diversity and equality of NFL coaching) told the Boston Globe in a phone interview, “We see what happened this time as primarily the regular, rough-and-tumble part of the NFL business — win or go home,” said Mehri. “But we remain very optimistic about where things are going forward.” Fritz Pollard Alliance helped enact the “Rooney Rule” in 2003 and Mehri believes it to be working well, except that the NFL is working to strengthen its efficacy as the latest round of post Black Monday hires approaches. According to the league’s chief human resources officer, Robert Gulliver, “Our focus was simply: How do we make the Rooney Rule better?” So, what is the truth?

The hiring of coaches in the NFL is beholden the expectation of excitement, which NFL owners usually find in offensive-focused coaches, posing a problem for minority candidates. “Our biggest challenge is that there are too few minority coaches who are play callers as offensive coordinators, or quarterback coaches, and that pipeline needs to get strengthened,” Mehri said. “Even though defense wins championships, the owners seem to be fascinated by offensive coordinators, and so few of them are minority coaches.” Whether it’s tech, finance, or the NFL, the pipeline of opportunity runs freely for white men but the barrier to entry faced by minorities is always an intricate affair that gives those in the charge the benefit of the doubt in the wake of any scrutiny.

That barrier is that much more severe for women coaches in NFL, which, of course. In its history, there have been three women who have coached and one of them is a Black woman called Collette Smith. As a child of Queens, Smith grew up supporting the Jets and even played for the New York Sharks for three seasons reports ESPN. A knee injury took Smith out of the game, forcing her to pivot to coaching — a move that has her making history as the first woman to be hired as coach by the New York Jets. Women make up almost half of the NFL’s fanbase and a third of their employees reports CNBC. That being said, there has never been a female head coach, even with the existence of a whole Independent Women’s Football League that Smith came from.

The axing of 8 coaches is the most severe firing round to come out of Black Monday in 5 years and it’s unlikely that the same number of Black coaches will be hired considering the lack of (groomed) minority candidates. That is why the “Rooney Rule” isn’t working. For an organization with piss-poor racial cognizance, the NFL recognizing it needs to strengthen its hiring policy must mean that things are dire. After all, LeBron James himself commented on how the NFL suffered from “slave mentality” in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s continued punishment for his kneel against racial injustice. The added scrutiny garnered from Kaep’s deliberate exclusion is shining a light on the NFL hiring practices, down to the assistant coaches, who also leave with head coaches.

The Boston Globe reports that amendments made to strengthen the “Rooney Rule” include a new rule stating that at least one minority must be interviewed, be it from an outside team or from the NFL’s Career Development Advisory List. This means that teams don’t get to interview a minority coach on staff with no real prospects as a way of satisfying the “Rooney Rule”. Changes also include a rule that ensures all interviews with minority coaches be documented with time, place and who was in the room — final decision makers now have to be in every interview. These changes seem significant and Mehri seems optimistic about the NFL’s growth, but can we really get excited at the progress when Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job?

It seems as if the NFL gets to pick and choose where it deals with its inherent racism, especially considering that coaches jobs are on the line just like players. Black coaches comprised of almost a quarter of league coaches and yet Kaepernick, a more than capable quarterback, couldn’t be hired because of his offensive position (Black coaches predominantly defense-focused) but also because coaches have just as much power as players. It comes down to those decision-makers who are almost always white men who will seek to hire other white men and this year will be no different because that’s what and who they know — often by design.