INDIANAPOLIS – In a moment of candor during the NFL scouting combine this week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians made his opinion known about the league’s performance regarding inclusive hiring.
Frustrated that Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who are both Black, weren’t offered head coaching positions during the past two hiring cycles despite the team’s success, Arians said there’s clearly a problem.
“When those two guys are not head coaches after the last two seasons … something’s wrong,” he said.
Given that former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit – which seeks class-action status – against the NFL recently that alleges professional sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices, Arians’ assessment of the situation is hardly groundbreaking.
But his willingness to comment candidly about the long-running problem is another example of how Flores’ lawsuit pushed much more into the light.
A cloud continued to cover the NFL as officials from the league’s 32 teams evaluated former college players in advance of the 2022 NFL draft in April. After discussions ended about who ran the fastest, who jumped the highest and who lifted the most, many Black coaches and player-personnel officials refocused their thoughts on Flores’ battle against the NFL.
Flores is fighting for them as well, several Black coaches and executives told Andscape during the league’s premier event to scout draft-eligible players. At the combine, which ends Sunday, it’s common for Black NFL employees in football and business operations to chop it up about the hiring cycle that concludes before the gathering.
There’s a lot more for them to chew on this year, though, because of Flores’ lawsuit and the league’s response to it.
Only four days after the NFL announced quickly that the lawsuit filed by Flores, who was recently hired as an assistant coach by the Pittsburgh Steelers, is without merit, commissioner Roger Goodell revealed in a memo sent to owners that the league understands the concerns expressed by Flores and others, and it will initiate a comprehensive review of its entire approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
That move surprised some Black NFL employees, several said, as has the willingness of many decision-makers across the league to speak more openly about the overall lack of progress in achieving Goodell’s stated aim of increasing diversity significantly from the front office to the field.
Arians, for one, has done his part.
Twice selected The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year, Arians put together a Buccaneers staff that is the first in NFL history to have three African American coordinators: Leftwich (offense), Bowles (defense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams). Harold Goodwin, who is the team’s assistant head coach, offensive line coach and run game coordinator, is also Black. Arians hired the first two female coaches in Buccaneers history: Lori Locust (assistant defensive line) and Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning).
In February, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion, honored Arians with a lifetime achievement award for his commitment to furthering opportunities for candidates of color in coaching, scouting and front-office roles. Arians believes there are many more qualified, talented people of color than positions to fill.
So what’s the problem?
“[Coaches are] not owners,” said Arians, who led the Buccaneers to a blowout victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.
“We know what good coaches look like. … It’s not hard for us.”
Over the previous five hiring cycles, there have been 36 head coaching openings. Four Black men were hired to fill positions. Four.
In the cycle completed before this season’s combine, white coaches were chosen for seven of the nine openings. Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans are the league’s only Black head coaches.
Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins, whose father is Black, is biracial. Ron Rivera of the Washington Commanders and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets are the league’s other minority head coaches.
Yet again, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is Black, was not offered a head coaching position.
Bieniemy’s situation has drawn significant attention because of the team’s success the past four seasons under head coach Andy Reid, and that Bieniemy’s two predecessors in the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator role – Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson – went on to become head coaches. Like Arians, Reid is disappointed that a qualified assistant on his staff hasn’t been offered an opportunity to move up.
“Try to hire the best people that you possibly can and that [can] help you win football games,” said Reid, who was honored by the Fritz Pollard Alliance in 2018. “Keep yourself focused on that, which people do a decent job, but somehow the diversity part has kind of got thrown to the side [with many other teams].”
During this cycle, the Chicago Bears hired Ryan Poles, formerly executive director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, as their new general manager. The Minnesota Vikings hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, former vice president of football operations for the Cleveland Browns, as their new general manager.
Three Black general managers were hired during the previous cycle: Terry Fontenot of the Atlanta Falcons, Brad Holmes of the Detroit Lions and Martin Mayhew of the Washington Commanders. The league now has seven Black general managers.
Each team must get its own house in order, Atlanta’s Fontenot said.
“What I have to do is look in the mirror, look at what we’re doing in Atlanta,” he said. “I can focus on that area … to help this part of the process. I have to make sure that, No. 1, everyone in the building … has opportunities to continue to grow. Whether we’re talking about coaches, whether we’re talking about people in the personnel department, the training staff, [teams must] make sure people in your building are able to grow and are able to develop.
“You have [to be] very intentional in doing that. Then [there’s] also the pipeline. [When] you’re bringing in people, whether you’re bringing in coaches [or] scouts, any area of the organization, make sure you’re bringing in minorities and everyone has opportunities to get in your organization and then grow. For me personally, I just look in the mirror and make sure that we’re doing the right things here in Atlanta.”
Now more than ever, officials are open about the NFL’s hiring problem. If only the entire league would go about doing the right thing to fix it.