After a season trying to stop African American players’ protests hurting their profits, NFL owners have bypassed black coaches this winter. For seven open jobs, owners appear to have found six white men
NFL owners spent much of last fall dragging black players to their feet, trying to break the anthem protest lest the cry for racial equality grew too loud for the advertisers’ comfort. This winter, they’ve spent much time trying to keep white men in charge of their teams.
Another handful of head coaches has cycled out only to be replaced by a group just as white as the one before. In a league that is nearly 70% African American, only 25% of the head coaches are considered minorities, meaning the NFL has a lot of white coaches trying to balance the social justice concerns of their players with the bottom line of irritated owners.
This offseason was an opportunity for NFL teams. When seven coaches were either fired or retired at season’s end, the owners could have embarked on a diligent pursuit of talented African American men to coach their teams. Instead, they whitewashed the rule book, contorting themselves around good policy in search of familiar faces to fit beneath their headsets.
For seven open jobs, owners appear to have found six white men. In today’s world, in a league like the NFL, that’s a real feat, a test of ingenuity. But this is an offseason where the Detroit Lions dumped their most successful head coach in more than five decades, Jim Caldwell – a black man – who produced three winning seasons and two playoff berths in four years.
“We didn’t beat the really good teams,” said general manager Bob Quinn when he explained Caldwell’s firing.
The Lions have a long history of losing to both good and bad teams over the last 50 years. But Detroit already had an idea who they were going to hire: New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, a man with a longshoreman’s beard, a pencil behind his ear and no head coaching experience. An unfair assessment, no doubt, because Patricia is considered to have a brilliant mind, further packed with genius by his mentor Bill Belichick. And yet how fair was it to run out Caldwell for raising mediocrity to a level of respectability?
At least the Lions conducted something resembling a search in their rush to snatch Patricia, interviewing two African American candidates before announcing the coach they appeared to want all along. The Oakland Raiders didn’t seem to seriously consider anyone else in their zeal to throw the richest contract ever at Jon Gruden. Owner Mark Davis said during Gruden’s hiring press conference that he waited until he was sure Gruden would come before firing previous coach, Jack Del Rio, making it the ultimate of all end arounds.
There’s nothing wrong with the Raiders chasing Gruden. Landing him is a PR coup for a franchise torn between pacifying a fanbase they are abandoning in Oakland and building a new one in Las Vegas. But when an owner blatantly admits he had no interest in even looking at an African American candidate on his way to hiring a coach off television and the league endorses this without even a finger shake you have to wonder how committed the NFL is in finding men of color to coach their mostly-black teams.
Had the Arizona Cardinals not picked Carolina’s highly-respected defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the run of new coaching hires would have been a complete whitewash. The shame of this is that the NFL used to be the standard for promoting minorities with the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manager jobs. The rule has been a model for hiring both in and out of sports. The owner for whom the rule is named, Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney, lived to its word when looking for a coach in 2007. He hired a black defensive coordinator from Minnesota, Mike Tomlin, who has since taken the Steelers to two Super Bowls.
Rooney died last year and with him seems to have perished respect for a standard he was proud to create. There was even a report that said some of the team’s limited partners were angling to push Tomlin out despite Pittsburgh’s 13-3 season.
The misconception about the Rooney Rule has been that it’s some kind of affirmative action forced upon teams by gutless league leaders ducking a racist label. The Rooney Rule doesn’t demand teams hire non-white coaches and general managers, only that they give these men a chance. For the most part, the rule has worked. Since it was implemented in 2003 two minority coaches have taken their teams to a Super Bowl title. Good coaches have been found. Good coaches have been hired.
“We want teams to go out and get the best guy for the job,” Jim Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting minority coaches, told me last year. Sometimes, he added, the best man is white. Sometimes he is not. But as long as teams are at least searching for top black candidates enough of those coaches will rise to the top.
Wooten has always advised black assistants to take interviews for head coaching jobs even when it is clear they are “token” candidates brought in to check off a box. His thinking is that the coaches will gain the experience of interviewing while planting their names for a better shot at a future head coaching role. At least that was the thinking then.
But in the last 12 months NFL owners have frozen out Colin Kaepernick, bulldozed over the pleas of African American players for racial equality in America, stomped on the Rooney Rule and handpicked a new batch of white coaches to lead their teams. As television ratings drop and the billion dollar resale value of teams quiver you have to wonder how much they care about fair chances.
Fifteen years into the Rooney Rule do they only want to hire more of their own?
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