By Scott MacLean
It might be the biggest, loudest, and most physical sporting league on the planet, but America’s National Football League has a problem. Well, it has several, but it has one that’s very pressing, and very obvious right now.
It’s one of image. One of colour.
The NFL has commenced its playoffs with the six games of the wildcard round over the weekend: one decent game, another with a wild ending, and four relative blowouts for the record. But preceding that comes what is known as Black Monday, the day after the end of the regular season where teams are most likely to announce that they’re parting ways with their head coach and/or their general manager. This season four coaches met that fate with two more in the days after, with those on top of two other departures during the season itself. Two of those were Miami’s Brian Flores and Houston’s David Culley.
In 2021 the NFL had three black head coaches. Flores and Culley were two of those.
Over 70% of the players in the NFL are black.
As it stands just one of the 32 head coaching positions in the league, where that person is the organisations figurehead, is black; Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin who has held that job with the Steelers since 2007. There are only two other head coaches of colour or an ethnic minority; Washington’s Ron Rivera who is Hispanic, and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, a Lebanese-American.
Flores was fired after three seasons in Miami going 24-25 with no playoff appearances but was regarded as a “players coach” and was turning around a moribund Dolphins franchise. Culley got just one season in Houston and arguably overachieved in going 4-13 with a poor Texans roster deprived of its star player, quarterback Deshaun Watson who missed the season while facing a veritable raft of sexual misconduct allegations.
The question being asked is, would they have been fired if they were white?
So, what’s the way forward? In 2003 the league instituted the “Rooney Rule”; named for Dan Rooney, the-then owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chair of the league’s diversity committee. It requires NFL teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations jobs, as at the time just six black men had ever been NFL head coaches and two of those, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, had just been fired despite their success in the jobs they’d held. Initially effective – in 2008 there were eight black or minority head coaches – that number has fluctuated in years since. Even the Rooney Rule has been tweaked as the head coach hiring process now requires two minority candidates to be interviewed and provides draft picks for teams that have a minority person hired away from them for a head coach or general manager job elsewhere.
There’s no shortage of quality minority coaches available, and in many cases already interviewed. That group includes Tampa Bay coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, Arizona’s Vance Joseph, and Buffalo’s Leslie Frazier. Bowles, Joseph, and Frazier have previously been head coaches, as has Jim Caldwell with Flores another expected to get another look.
Though while these measures are in place and these candidates exist, its still a competitive environment where the right hire can turn a team into a juggernaut and the wrong one leave it in the doldrums.
The NFL already has an issue with its owners who are, with a couple of exceptions, invariably some combination of a) rich, b) white, and c) either hereditary or newly cashed up which, together with the major ethnicity of the on-field workforce sometimes leads to unfavourable comparisons with parts of America’s pre-Civil War past.
I’m all in favour of the right person getting the job – and each of the names above certainly have the credentials – but for a league that’s so image conscious perhaps having its leadership being somewhat representative of its players might just be a start.
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