The NFL is attempting to tackle one of its most sensitive issues once again. A proposal to incentivize teams to hire minorities to head coaching and GM positions by awarding extra draft compensation is on the table for an ownership vote. It’s the latest attempt by the NFL to wrestle with the embarrassing lack of people of color being in positions of power and consequence in a league where over two-thirds of the players are people of color.
The ideal intent behind the proposal is a good, sensical one. I believe it comes from an honest and well-intentioned place. But this proposal is not the right answer or the best way to accomplish the stated and worthwhile goal of having more people of color in positions of real power among the NFL’s 32 organizations.
Just like the Rooney Rule before it, a necessary thrust to try and create more opportunities is absolutely needed. The Rooney Rule dictates that every team must interview a person of color for every head coaching vacancy. Nearly 70 percent of players are minorities, be it black or Pacific islander, yet the number of head coaches and GMs that are people of color can be counted without needing to remove any shoes. That gap is staggering, it’s troubling and it’s sadly widening from just a few short years ago.
Alas, the Rooney Rule is now often a joke, an afterthought procedure that no longer accomplishes what it nobly set out to do. For many folks, it’s an eye roll. “Oh, so he’s the Rooney Rule guy they had to interview just so they could hire the other guy they wanted all along.”
That’s a popular social media, and even mainstream sports media position to take. I heard it firsthand in covering recent coaching changes in Cleveland and Detroit. The Lions took a lot of heat in their last coaching “search” when the team fired Jim Caldwell and replaced him with Matt Patricia. Caldwell was a successful coach, 36-28 in four seasons and 9-7 in 2017. Yet that wasn’t enough for Caldwell, who is black, to keep his job.
Lions GM Bob Quinn knew he was going to hire old friend Matt Patricia as his next head coach from the minute he took over in early 2016. Everyone in the Detroit media knew it. Everyone in the New England media, where Quinn and Patricia toiled together prior to coming to Detroit, knew it too. But the organization had to check the Rooney Rule box and did so by interviewing Teryl Austin, the Lions’ largely successful defensive coordinator under Caldwell.
(Patricia has won nine games in two seasons, and run off many of the standout players under Caldwell. He is still employed.)
Austin lashed out in real-time at being a “token” interview with no real chance. He didn’t like being a show pony and took offense at being made into one to make the team that had just fired him look good. Many prominent black journalists and analysts shared Austin’s derision. Many white ones, myself included, did as well. It was proof the Rooney Rule was more about helping white owners feel less (if any) guilt about hiring white coaches than it was creating real opportunities for aspiring black coaches.
That seems to be the prevailing reaction to this latest proposal from many analysts and commentators of all colors. Is it really helping create opportunities or just helping those who make the decisions on those opportunities sleep a little better at night in their gated subdivisions? Then there are the debates--very valid discussions that are too nuanced to be explored here--about the notion of incentivizing minority hiring, about telling a private business who it can/cannot hire, about quotas, about correcting prior racial wrongs, that spin the conversation well away from the concept of football. The NFL, as well as the sports media covering the league, consistently fumbles political footballs, after all.
There is the Hue Jackson conundrum: how does a team handle when a minority coach is awful at his job? The Browns didn’t fire Jackson after he coached them to a winless season and displayed incompetence at every turn. Hue didn’t fail because he was black, he failed because he wasn’t good at being a head coach. But there was considerable pressure to keep him precisely because of the color of his skin. That’s a very difficult layer of the onion to consume and digest, one that probably shouldn’t be ignored but largely will because it inevitably leads to finger-pointing, race-baiting and blustery bravado when those are precisely the reactions to avoid to create real progress.
I don’t know the right answer. I don’t know that there is a right answer.
My hope for what comes from this proposal: more of the white billionaire owners realize they are not doing a good enough job of recognizing there is an issue or doing anything about it. Maybe it impacts two or three of those monied, privileged whites and makes them act upon it, leading to more opportunities for black coaches and GMs. If the ownership ignorance isn’t willful, that could certainly happen. Banking on the benevolence of rich white people having racial epiphanies isn’t a viable long-term strategy, however.