The Intentional Grounding of Black Coaches in College and the NFL

TonyAs an avid fan of college and pro football, I dedicate a lot of my weekend hours to watching my favorite sport.  I instinctively find myself rooting for teams that have a tradition of allowing black quarterbacks to start and teams that also have a black coach.  My support of black quarterbacks and coaches evolved from a time when I recalled not seeing any black coaches and very few black quarterbacks leading their teams.  Despite African-Americans making up almost 70% of players in both college and the NFL, African-American coaches are severely underrepresented compared to white coaches.

Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only five currently have an African-American head coach – and the numbers are even worse in Division I college ranks.  To address this disparity, in 2003, the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule (named after Steelers’ former owner, Art Rooney).  The Rooney Rule required each NFL team to interview at least one African-American coach prior to making a head coaching decision.  Since the Rooney Rule has been implemented, we’ve seen the number of overall black coaches increase only slightly.  Furthermore, the number of first time black head coaches without prior head coaching experience was miniscule compared to the number of white head coaches without prior head coaching experience.

If someone were previously oblivious to the NFL and began following the league, they may ask:  Why are most of the players black and most of the coaches are white?  Is it because white coaches are simply better at coaching? Are African-Americans more suited for playing the game, instead of coaching the game?  These would all be valid questions to an outside observer, but as we know, there’s a lot more to consider when trying to answer these salient questions.

For many years, college and NFL teams only allowed a few black players to play the game – despite their obvious physical attributes.  Over the past thirty years, the NFL has transformed into a league that thrives on African-American players  — unfortunately, black head coaches were not allowed to thrive in the league.  The NFL did not hire its first African-American head coach until 1989, when the late Al Davis hired Art Shell to lead his Oakland Raiders.   Since then, there have only been 15 black head coaches in NFL history.

Recently, Rex Ryan and John Fox were released from their respective teams but wasted no time finding new head coaching jobs within days of their dismissal.  The same cannot be said for African-American coaches.  Lovie Smith who took the Chicago Bears to the Superbowl in 2006, was dismissed from his job in 2012 but did not land another head coaching position until two years later.  Denny Green and Herm Edwards both had similar experiences after being fired from their jobs.  The bottom line is that if you’re white, you have a much better chance of landing another head coaching job.

What’s the cause of this disparity?  Are NFL owners being racist? Or are they simply hiring people that they feel “comfortable” with?  Regardless of the motives, it’s clear that black coaches are not given the same opportunity as white coaches.  Many black coaches are steered towards defensive coordinator positions instead of the coveted offensive coordinator job, which is typically seen as a stepping stone to a head coaching job.   The stereotype of black coaches for a long time was that they were good at defensive schemes but incapable of being in charge of a sophisticated offensive game plan.

One of the objectives of the Rooney Rule was to give black coaches more experience at interviewing for head coaching jobs, which may have led to the hiring of coaches like Mike Tomlin, Leslie Frazier, Mike Singletary and Raheem Morris.  This was a great initiative but now it appears that most teams flaunt the NFL rule, skipping interviews with black coaches in an effort to hire more white coaches.

If the NFL was a traditional corporation, they most likely would have been sued for discrimination a long time ago.  There are very few industries where the majority of the workforce is dominated by one race or gender but not equally represented in the demographics of their managerial staff – imagine  companies like Mary Kay or Avon not having a history of female CEO’s, it would have certainly caused a public backlash.  However, in the NFL it’s simply business as usual.

Black coaches are probably reticent about the lack of opportunity because they don’t want to be “blacklisted” by NFL teams.  Until African-American coaches are given the same opportunity to fail and succeed as their counterparts, you will continue to see a gross lack of representation.  In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  The NFL and college programs have come a long way in their hiring practices but there’s clearly more work to be done, to achieve Dr. King’s dream.

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Eyes on the Empire

empire1Like most urbanites, I was anxious to see the premiere of Fox’s new television show entitled, Empire. It was difficult to drive around the city of LA without seeing a billboard or poster promoting this intriguing new hip-hop drama about the music business.  I typically don’t follow network TV shows, but I clearly was captivated by the hype and the unique storyline.

Once I began to watch the show, I was drawn in by the music and the myriad of complex characters.  Including, Terrence Howard as the patriarch of a musical dynasty and his convoluted relationship with his recently paroled ex-wife, played by the dynamic Taraji P. Henson.  Howard and Henson bring an instant credibility to the storyline, with their superb acting skills and on-screen presence. My biggest concern while watching Empire was, would it be authentic? Authenticity in the world of hip-hop is critical to an artist’s success and usually determines their level of success and acceptability – but there are exceptions like Iggy Azalea, who sounds like she’s a karaoke rapper that hasn’t been booed offstage yet.

Other than a few corny moments, where Howard’s sons attempt to collaborate on a hit song to appease their demanding father — I felt as though the show was realistic.  To enhance the credibility of the leading actors, Howard and Henson, director Lee Daniels incorporated flashbacks to a grittier time in their relationship as a successful drug dealer and an aspiring rapper trying to make it “big.”

The flashbacks also provide a back story into the evolution of their children’s lives and their complicated relationship with their parents.  In one scene, Howard’s middle son, who’s struggling with “coming out” can be seen prancing into the living room wearing his mother’s clothing.   Howard’s character angrily responds and picks up his son and throws him into a trash can outside.  I recently read that this was an actual event that occurred in director Lee Daniels’ life as a boy.  So apparently, Mr. Daniels who is one of the executive producers, has created a character within the show, that he can vicariously tell his personal story through as part of a fictional musical dynasty.

The inclusion of a gay hip-hop artist was quite surprising and I’m sure caused a lot of viewers to question the overall theme of the TV show.  Watching the way that Howard’s character handled his relationship with his gay son was quite awkward but also provided a real-life perspective on how difficult it must be for a father to accept his son’s lifestyle.

Despite his feelings towards his son, Lucious, the main character must decide which of his three sons will ascend to the throne of his soon-to-be publicly traded hip hop empire.  However, this narrative is severely flawed because it’s obvious that his older Ivy league educated son, Andre, is the clear choice to be the next CEO.  His other two sons, who are both artists, seem to be completely unqualified and uninterested in running a large company.  Which begs the question, how could a successful businessman like Lucious not clearly see the obvious choice? Would he risk turning over a thriving music business to his younger son, who seems to be struggling to develop his career while dealing with the temptations of being young, rich and famous? Most likely not, but the producers apparently thought it could work.

After the pilot episode was over, I felt like there were too many dynamics to consider within the story.  Lucious murders his long-time friend who was seeking to extort money from him, Lucious finds out he has terminal ALS, his wife is recently released from prison and finagles her way into his company, his sons are dealing with the return of their estranged mother, his older son his plotting with his mother to take control of the company, his ex-wife is jealous of his new girlfriend, Lucious is worried about taking his company public etc.  All of these elements didn’t have to be revealed in the pilot episode, it felt as though the director was overreaching.

Regardless of the flawed storyline, Empire certainly seems like a show worth watching and I’m curious to see how the series unfolds.  Like most of the 9.8 million viewers that tuned in last week, I’ll be watching tonight to see if the show is truly destined to become an “empire.”