After an NFL draft a few years back, a longtime NFC team official privately opined that the “War Room Cams,” which show front-office leaders at work before picks are made, were a bad look for the league because “they shine a light on” the lack of diversity in club management. Well, a floodlight is on the 2020 draft.
That the NFL lacks diversity at the most senior levels of football operations isn’t breaking news. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the changes to the draft highlight that people of color are virtually nonexistent in the highest decision-making roles. With general managers and head coaches pictured on screen from their homes making first-round selections Thursday night, the situation that commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged is bad for the league was on full display.
Shot after shot showed white men selecting players, providing another reminder that the numbers are awful: Entering the upcoming season, the NFL has only two African American general managers and four head coaches of color. When the Miami Dolphins, the NFL’s only team to have both a general manager and a head coach of color, were on screen making their three first-round picks, it was clear in watching general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores that the organization is an outlier.
Rod Graves definitely noticed. For Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, watching the draft only reinforced how much work still must be done for the NFL to become truly inclusive.
“It is a bad look. And for me, it’s not just a bad look, it’s a painful look,” Graves, who leads the independent group that advises the league on diversity matters, said on the phone. “This is a league that I love and admire. But in this particular area, as I’ve said over and over, it’s shameful.
“The fact that we’re not in those positions, nor is there attention put on the contributions of those [people of color] who are in those areas, is frustrating. They may not be in the [top] leadership positions, but there are quite a few people in player-personnel, and in other areas of organizations, who are black, or people of color or diverse, who make significant contributions. Yet, we don’t see them.”
At least with the “War Room Cams,” Graves explained, some team officials of color were occasionally shown on television working in rooms where decisions were being made. Such large gatherings were canceled for this draft as the commissioner’s office mandated that teams and potential draft picks adhere to strict local and state social distancing guidelines throughout the three-day event. So the optics are even worse with this draft as, mostly, white team officials select black players, which is business as usual in the NFL.
The NFL’s on-field workforce is about 70% black. Of the 32 players selected in the first round Thursday, 30 were players of color and 29 were black. The draft shows that owners must do more to address the inequity in opportunity beyond the field, Graves said.
“They can’t hide from it,” Graves said. “For anybody who’s paying attention … it’s a horrible look for a multibillion-dollar business. What we saw in the draft not only magnifies the imbalance in the lack of diversity [in leadership positions in football operations], but it underscores the type of racism that’s taking place in the National Football League.
“On the one hand, the league doesn’t have a problem using blacks on the field to help increase the revenue opportunities. You saw player after player, so many black players or players of color, but we can’t participate in the leadership roles. What does that say to all the young men who were welcomed into the league last night? They can have opportunities on the field, but there are few opportunities for them in the game after they’ve helped to grow the game and make it more popular? That’s wrong. And that, to me, is a bad commentary.”
In response to the crisis occurring in inclusive hiring in the NFL, the alliance held a town hall meeting in January to discuss the situation with executives and coaches of color. Then in February at the NFL scouting combine, high-ranking league officials and leaders of the alliance held multiple meetings about the situation.
It had been expected that owners and top officials from the commissioner’s office would discuss new hiring proposals during the league meeting in May, which was canceled because of efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Graves and the alliance, however, have continued to press the league.
“We’re working at this very moment,” he said. “We’re still addressing the issues. We haven’t been sitting back because of the current situation.
“We can’t sit back, because these issues are very important, and we once again see how important as a whole group of new players comes into the league to achieve their dreams and pursue opportunities on the field. Once they’re done playing, it’s only right that they have opportunities in other parts of the game, too.”