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ASU research reveals dismal record of hiring Black NFL head coaches

Global Sport Institute panel experts say team owners might face pressure or even litigation

February 05, 2021

A new Arizona State University study shows the dismal record of hiring Black head coaches in the NFL — a league in which three-quarters of the players are Black.

The research was unveiled Feb. 5 during a panel discussion titled “How the NFL Moves Forward," sponsored by the Global Sport Institute at ASU.

The Global Sport Institute study, “NFL Head Coach Hiring and Pathways in the Rooney Rule Era,” was presented by Rachel Lofton, project coordinator for the Global Sport Institute. It covers the seasons 2002–03 to 2019–20 and shows:

  • Of the 115 head coaching hires in that time period, 92 were white men.
  • There were three seasons when no head coaches of color were hired.
  • White and minority head coaches have similar winning percentages.

Several speakers noted that in the most recently completed cycle of hiring, in January, one Black man, one Arab-American man and five white men were hired for the seven open head coach positions.

“By any standard, the hiring this season in the NFL has been abysmal,” said Ken Shropshire, the adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport and the CEO of the Global Sport Institute.

“Hiring one African-American coach with seven openings is really head-scratching. At the same time, it’s an odd year because I would say the league itself, the league office in New York, has done a lot of work (in diversity and equity),” he said.

There are currently three Black head coaches in the NFL: the newly hired David Culley of the Houston Texans, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores.

That’s the same number of Black head coaches as when the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. The Rooney Rule, named after the late Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, requires NFL franchises to interview minority candidates for senior football operations and head coaching positions.

Jim Rooney, son of Dan Rooney, was a panelist at the Friday webinar.

“I think my father did a good job with this and folks get to hide behind his good work, and it’s difficult to watch that year after year,” said Rooney, author of the book "A Different Way to Win.”

Doug Williams is the senior adviser to the president of the Washington Football Team and was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He disputed that the problem is not enough qualified Black coaches in the pipeline.

“We have them in the pipeline. It’s a matter of opening the valve,” he said.

“You’ve got 75% African Americans in your dressing room. They want to see somebody who looks like them.”

The panelists agreed that the responsibility lies with the 32 team owners.

“My experience dealing with NFL owners is, at the end of the day, no hiring decisions are made without his or her blessing,” said Ray Anderson, vice president of university athletics at ASU and a former agent. 

“There’s not a general manager who will make that decision without having the backing of the owner.”

So what could make the NFL owners change their behavior?

Esé Ighedosa, a former lawyer with the NFL and now the president of House of Athlete wellness company, said that it might come down to external pressure.

“I was someone who wanted to believe it was unconscious bias and team owners hiring people they are ‘more comfortable’ with, but at some point, it seems really intentional and it’s hard to accept that,” she said.

“If you’re anywhere in the NFL, you’re around Black people all the time. And you’re comfortable with a player when they come to your house but not comfortable when they help run your organization?

“We have to say that out loud.”

She said that the reasoning of being “more comfortable” with white people can no longer be excused.

“You can say, ‘This person reminds me of myself when I was young,’ but a Black person might never remind of you of yourself when you were young but I don’t believe that’s in the job description,” Ighedosa said.

She said that fans might be able to make a difference.

“I don’t know if fans care, but if they started to care like they care about what Facebook is doing, or what Google is doing, then there could be consumer activism in sports, where fans say, ‘I have issues with your hiring practices,’” she said.

“That could move the needle.”

Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said that change will demand a collective effort by players, sponsors and, possibly, the government.

“We’re dealing with businesses that rely on public funding for stadiums and so forth,” said Graves, who was general manager of the Arizona Cardinals from 2002 to 2012. “They should be held to a higher standard.”

He also said that lack of diversity in NFL hiring goes beyond the sidelines.

“We’ve allowed them to confine this conversation to NFL teams and the NFL office and what takes place on the field, but if you pull back the sheet on the NFL and look at properties and media and all the other subsidiaries, you’ll find their record on diversity of leadership is just as dismal.”

N. Jeremi Duru, professor of law at American University Washington College of Law, noted that the Rooney Rule began after a threat of litigation, which ultimately never materialized.

“It is not unfathomable that there could be a lawsuit,” he said. He added that such a case would likely be against a team when there is evidence of discrimination.

“In the context now where people are finding their voice and talking about systemic discrimination, I can’t promise there won’t be activist litigation that comes to bear.”

Rooney said his father’s actions were driven by more than business.

“He believed it was a moral and spiritual imperative to do this. He believed he had to be accountable to his own faith and his own soul in doing this,” he said. “I don’t know how you transfer that.”

Rooney said people will “vote with their feet.”

“Maybe they’ll stop watching games. That would disrupt the business enough to get their attention.”

The Global Sport Institute research report included a deep dive into pathways to head coaching, including offensive coordinator and the slightly more promising path for Black candidates, defensive coordinator. Both are dominated by white men.

The study also looked at playing experience. Overall, coaches of color had higher levels of playing experience than white head coaches. Six white head coaches in the time period studied had not played at all beyond high school or community college. No Black head coaches had that lack of experience.

“There is a common misconception that to be an NFL head coach you have to have played, but when we look at that data, that’s not the case,” Lofton said.

That raises the question about women in the NFL, she said.

“If you don’t have to play, why can’t you coach?”

Top image by Pixabay