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?
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.