Diversity in the NFL

In the Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places, there is a scene when Randolph Duke asks his brother Mortimer if they should retain Murphy’s character as the managing director:

You mean keep Valentine on, as Managing Director?

Do you really believe I would have a nigger run our family business, Randolph?

Of course not. Neither would I.

It is not a stretch to imagine a similar conversation taking place in the executive offices of NFL franchises among owners. Today on the first day of Black History Month, there is exactly one African American head coach employed by NFL franchises. Houston fired head coach David Culley after one season despite being universally praised for the Texans overachieving with a roster bereft of NFL talent. Brian Flores hired by the Miami Dolphins three years ago, right before management decided to sell off most of their talent in a blatant attempt to tank the season. Flores held the locker room together during that turbulent season and produced two winning seasons after that first season. Eric Bieniemy has been the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that has gone to four consecutive AFC championship games and two Super Bowls. Bieniemy has yet to sniff a head coaching job. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers feature African American offensive and defensive coordinators with a Super Bowl championship on their resume; both were expected to be hot head-coaching candidates this year. Neither has been hired or considered a finalist in for any of them the remaining jobs.

African American head coaches are also held to a higher standard than most white coaches take Jim Caldwell, who as head coach of the Colts led them to the Super Bowl his first season, went 10-6 his second before an injury to star quarterback Peyton Manning suffered an injury that would force him to miss the following season. The Colts went 2-14, and Caldwell was relieved of his duties. It took four years for Caldwell to be given another opportunity; conversely, the New York Jets hired Adam Gase after two straight losing seasons before the Dolphins could change the locks on his office. Caldwell produced three winning seasons out of four in Detroit and was fired for his efforts. The Lions have since hired two white head coaches who have produced zero winning seasons since Caldwell’s firing. Current Lions head coach Dan Campbell, despite posting a 3-13-1 record, has been praised by the media for his team playing hard and improving the culture in Detroit; think back to what I wrote about David Culley as a perspective on that. The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to the Super Bowl; their head coach Zac Taylor prior to this year was 2-14 and 4-11 but was afforded the opportunity to grow with the team.

Now let’s transpose the NFL with the NBA, a league with only one African American owner. Last hiring cycle, there were eight head coach openings, seven filled by African Americans. Thirteen of the thirty NBA head coaches are currently African Americans. The pipeline to head coaching opportunities in the NBA, assistant coaches, is teeming with African Americans. When head coaching opportunities arise in the NBA, African Americans routinely are interviewed as opposed to what in many cases is the token interview afforded to a single African American candidate to satisfy the Rooney Rule. While far from perfect, the NBA has made diversity hires among its head coaches a priority, and its owners are leap years ahead of their NFL counterparts in progressive thinking.

There appears to be no easy answer to the NFL problem. The league is a money-making machine, and its ownership has in their mind no reason to worry about the perception of their hiring practices. The Commissioner’s office has no real say in the matter as the Commissioner is an employee of the owners. Until NFL owners make the collective decision to prioritize diversity in the hiring of head coaches, it will be the same old story for the foreseeable future.

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