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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