INDIANAPOLIS — This much is agreed upon about the state of inclusive hiring at the club level in the NFL: It’s awful. There’s no consensus, however, on how to improve a flawed system that’s stifling the careers of qualified people of color throughout the league.
After yet another hiring cycle in which owners mostly chose from the white pool of candidates to fill the top coaching openings, many minority assistants expressed anger about their lack of upward mobility within the league. To recap: In the past three cycles, there have been 20 openings for head coaches and only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle. Entering the 2020 season, the 32-team league will have four head coaches of color. The NFL, which just commemorated its 100th season, has never had an African American team president. Things are so bad that the Cleveland Browns’ hiring of Andrew Berry as their new general manager and executive vice president of football operations was roundly cited as significant progress on that front. With Berry’s hiring, the number of black general managers doubled – to two. Berry joined Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins as the only black men in the league to currently occupy traditionally the most powerful seat in football operations.
With that backdrop, league representatives will meet with members of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity, during the weeklong scouting combine that gets going in earnest Tuesday. League and alliance officials meet annually during the combine to review the previous hiring cycle and propose ways to strengthen the process that all teams must follow when filling positions under the Rooney Rule. Several meetings are expected to occur this year.
N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University and author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, will be at the meetings. He said there’s a lot to discuss.
“We are at a bad point. Everybody who is concerned about this issue recognizes that,” Duru said on the phone last week. “And that includes people with the league. [Commissioner] Roger Goodell has come out and said we’ve got to continue thinking about new issues and new strategies to deal with this. [Former commissioner] Paul Tagliabue said, essentially, the same thing. [Pittsburgh Steelers team president] Art Rooney II is on record saying the same thing. We’re in a situation now where it’s kind of all oars in the water to try to ensure that, indeed, there are fair and equitable hiring processes across the league.”
So, in an effort to finally make that happen, what can be done? Based on interviews with more than 20 current and former black NFL player-personnel executives and coaches, The Undefeated compiled a list of the ideas most debated by those who would be most hurt by maintaining the status quo.
Rod Graves, executive director of the alliance, said Goodell is an ally in the fight to improve diversity from the front office to the field. Goodell, Graves said, needs more buy-in from NFL owners to effect positive change. Perhaps it’s time to push owners by protesting, some suggested. If executives and coaches could persuade players to join them in their fight, the thinking goes, owners would presumably be worried about potential damage to their brand and change their unsatisfactory hiring practices.
Of course, that’s a best-case scenario in theory.
The reality is, it’s highly unlikely that executives and coaches would protest in some public forum, either individually or en masse. There’s just too much for them to risk in angering their employers. Also, although many players privately sympathize with the plight of executives and coaches of color, they’ve shown no interest in organizing around the issue of inclusive hiring. Additionally, there has been talk of asking black Hall of Famers to dissociate from the Pro Football Hall of Fame until the hiring landscape improves. Likewise, there’s no momentum for that approach, either.
Another option would be for executives and coaches of color to pursue litigation. Remember: The league capitulated and instituted the Rooney Rule only because it faced the threat of legal action.
Because of how poorly things have trended for a good stretch now, especially during the past three hiring cycles, the data suggests something is occurring that’s not random, several legal scholars have said. Although there appears to be sound legal ground for coaches of color to pursue a remedy in the courts, for a practical matter, there would be major risks for any coaches who joined forces in suing a team or multiple teams. Just look at what happened to Colin Kaepernick’s career after he filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, which the sides ultimately settled.
3. Expand the Rooney Rule to cover coordinator positions
This one could have legs.
Rooney, chairman of the NFL’s diversity workplace committee, raised the idea in January during an interview with the NFL Network.
In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule, named after Rooney’s late father Dan, former Steelers chairman and the onetime head of the league’s diversity committee, mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs.
In an attempt to strengthen the rule, the league made revisions in 2018. Now, owners seeking to interview candidates from outside their organizations must pick from the NFL’s career development advisory panel list, as well as a list of black assistant coaches who should be considered to move up each hiring cycle. The latter list is compiled by the alliance, which helps oversee compliance with the rule.
Last season, there were only two black offensive coordinators in the league: Eric Bieniemy of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and Byron Leftwich of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If more coordinators of color are hired as a result of additional positions being covered by the rule, executives and coaches said the hope is owners will see more viable options to fill their highest coaching positions.
4. Change the entire workplace environment
The alliance would like every NFL team to develop and implement a comprehensive diversity plan, which, in 2020, doesn’t seem like a major ask of a league approaching $20 billion in annual revenue. Studies have shown that it’s good business for big businesses to have diversity in the workplace.
By adopting such a significant initiative, the NFL would show its commitment to making hiring throughout the league more inclusive. Thirty-two companies, however, form the league, and persuading each owner to sign off on a diversity plan could prove to be a daunting task for Goodell. Then again, the Rooney Rule didn’t come about in a day.
5. The carrot and the stick
What if the league incentivized inclusive hiring?
In the NFL, draft picks are the foundation of roster building. The league office could award picks to teams that lead the way in building truly diverse workplaces. Conversely, picks could be stripped from teams that continue to fall woefully short in this area.
Again, with where things stand, all ideas must be on the table, American University’s Duru said.
“When you’ve seen that there hasn’t been the sort of progress, which a lot of people with great intentions are working toward, then you have to continue to be creative and think about all sorts of opportunities and options to improve that situation,” Duru said. “That’s the dynamic that exists now.”
Considering the league has been roundly criticized for its deplorable record on inclusive hiring, one could argue that the conduct of most owners has been detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL. If Goodell is really up for this fight, perhaps that’s where he should start. Because understand this: To bring about the change Goodell and the alliance want, they’ll have to drag owners kicking and screaming.