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Workplace Fairness Super Bowl XL Report
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National Football League & Its Teams

In discussing the National Football League's showcase event, we would be remiss if we did not also take a look at the NFL and its member teams. Do the NFL's hiring and retention practices for head coaches and front office leadership represent the best that sports has to offer? Or, even with forward progress, does the league still fall short?

In 2002, attorneys Cyrus Mehri and the late Johnnie Cochran released Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities, a groundbreaking report which revealed that black NFL head coaches were held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, and were consequently denied a fair chance to compete for head coaching jobs. When the report was released, the NFL immediately took action to improve its teams' hiring practices, leading to the establishment of the "Rooney Rule," named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney who chaired the league's diversity committee. The Rooney Rule requires that each team interview at least one minority candidate prior to selecting a head coach.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, created in 2003 and named after the NFL's first black head coach, advocates for policy changes in the NFL hiring practices and works in partnership with the NFL to create opportunities for minority candidates. The Fritz Pollard Alliance reports tremendous progress since the Rooney Rule was adopted three years ago. The number of African American head coaches has tripled from two to a record number of six: Romeo Crennel (Browns), Herman Edwards (Chiefs), Tony Dungy (Colts), Dennis Green (Cardinals), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), and Lovie Smith (Bears). There is also a record number of African American offensive coordinators, which helps address the need for qualified coaches in the pipeline. The Rooney Rule now has an enforcement mechanism, as Matt Millen of the Detroit Lions learned to his $200,000 detriment when he failed to interview a minority candidate for the head coach vacancy filled in 2003 with the hiring of Steve Mariucci (whose presence lives on at the Lions' website).

During the last three years minorities have also made major progress in the front office ranks: Ozzie Newsome became the first African-American General Manager of an NFL team (Ravens) in late 2002, while James "Shack" Harris (Jaguars), Doug Williams (Buccaneers), Rod Graves (Cardinals), Jerry Reese (Giants), Rick Smith (Broncos), Lawrence McCutcheon (Rams), Jimmy Raye (Chargers), Will Lewis (Seahawks), Martin Mayhew (Lions), and Kevin Warren (Minneapolis) have all joined the ranks of front office executives. In the league front office, Art Shell (Senior Vice President of Football Operations and Development, formerly the league's first black head coach in modern times), Gene Washington (Director of Football Operations), Harold Henderson (Executive Vice President for Labor Relations and Chairman of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee), and Michael Haynes> (Vice President of Player and Employee Development) all wield significant power as African-American executives.

However, the hiring process at the end of the 2005 season was tackled at the line of scrimmage, as few significant gains can be reported, especially considering the unusually high number of vacancies. Of the eight NFL head coach openings already filled this year (the Raiders have not yet selected a new head coach), all eight were filled with non-minority candidates, despite a record number of minority candidates interviewed—over 25. Although Herman Edwards was the first minority coach who was ever the subject of a trade (from the Jets to the Chiefs), there has been no net gain this year in the overall number of minority football coaches.

If success is ultimately what matters most in the NFL, it's hard to argue with the success of the league's African-American coaches. Fifty percent of the league's African-American coaches (Dungy, Smith and Lewis) took their teams to the playoffs, while only 38% of the league's white coaches did so. Dungy, Smith and Lewis were all leading candidates for Coach of the Year, an accolade ultimately won by Lovie Smith. As one analyst describes the 2005 season, "[t]hree of the best stories in football this year—Cincinnati's rise, Indianapolis' flirtation with perfection and the Bears' return to bruising prominence—were authored by black head coaches."

Yet despite all this proven success already in the league, African-American coaches still face the same double standard they faced when the 2002 report was released: the pool of minority candidates appeared to be stronger and more experienced than those white candidates who were ultimately hired for the head coaching positions. Says attorney Mehri, "Each team could say what their justifications were, but if you look at it collectively, it still shows that there's an uphill battle for African-American coaches." ESPN analyst Michael Smith says, "Bottom line: Minorities have been issued a different dues-paying schedule. The double standard—be twice as good, and often that isn't good enough—is something minorities, African-Americans especially, are just burdened with."

Change must come from both above and below. Although NCAA teams are the key pipeline for the NFL player ranks, the system is broken if we hope to use this same pipeline to increase the number of qualified minority candidates, as the dearth of minority coaches is even more severe in the college ranks. According to a NCAA report released last week, there were only three black head football coaches of Division I teams (Karl Dorrell at UCLA; Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State; and Tyrone Willingham at Washington), the least since the early 1990s, although this number has increased slightly (1.7%) with the postseason hires of Ron Prince (Kansas State) and Turner Gill (Buffalo). The college athletic leadership ranks are similarly devoid of minority candidates. Despite a 3.4 percent jump in minority athletic directors over the past year, 89 percent (106 of 119) are white, with just 10 black men, three Latino men and five women—all white—holding the job.

For change from the top to happen, there must be more minorities who are part of the "inner circle of decision makers" within teams—the people who surround the team owners and help choose the coaches. None of the 32 teams has a minority as its controlling owner. As Michael Haynes of the NFL said in a recent forum on minority coaches in the NFL, "I think that would make a huge difference, if we had, say, four African-American or minority owners. The fact that we have none, I think that's a big problem."

Before spending so many dollars supporting teams through game attendance and merchandise sales, fans should know just what their team's coaching staff and front office looks like. If just a fraction of the 90 million football fans watching the Super Bowl were to let their favorite teamís owner know that increased diversity in the coaching and leadership ranks was an important consideration for them, we could expect real forward progress. When the NFL learned in 2002 that nationally-renowned attorneys were paying attention to their coaching decisions, there was swift, significant progress. Fans paying attention will result in even more forward progress, until the coaching ranks and the front offices begin to look more like the diverse picture represented on the playing field.

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