NFL owners need incentives, not pressure to embrace true diversity


            The Rooney Rule is a valuable tool to help level the playing field when it comes to hiring minority coaches and front-office personnel in the National Football League. The Fritz Pollard Alliance is an essential advocate of racial and gender equality.  But to complete what the FPA calls Phase Three of its vision for a league free of bias, NFL owners might need to be enticed more than pressured.

            The 16th Annual Johnnie L. Cochran Salute to Excellence Awards presented virtually by the FPA on Tuesday celebrated the 100th anniversary of its namesake, becoming the first black head coach in professional football.  Pollard became head coach of the Akron Pros in 1921, but a century later, black head coaches in pro football remain a polarizing issue.  While that milestone and Pollard’s incredible legacy deserve recognition, the 800-pound elephant occupying digital space was the latest round of hiring head coaches in the NFL.

Only two of the seven vacancies for head coaching positions went to minority candidates.  Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, is the New York Jets new head coach, while the Houston Texans named David Culley, an African-American, as their head coach.  Culley joins Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and Brian Flores (Miami) as the three black head coaches in the NFL, the same number of black head coaches in the league when the FPA was founded during a standing-room-only meeting at the NFL Combine in 2002.

            John Wooten, an FPA founder and former offensive lineman with the Cleveland Browns, called the results of the hiring cycle “hurtful,” but echoed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s encouragement over the growing number of minorities in other positions.   Goodell said during the virtual program that the NFL has “made a lot of progress” when it comes to minority hiring.  Along with the two head coaches hired this cycle, 3 of 14 offensive coordinators, 4 of 10 special teams coordinators, 4 of 15 quarterback coaches, and 6 of 14 defensive coordinators were minorities, Goodell said. Four more minorities are holding general manager and assistant general manager positions than last year.   “We have a lot of work to do, and we’re committed to better results across the board,” the Commissioner said.  “I say that because it’s the right thing to do.”

            Cyrus Mehri, a co-founder of the Rooney Rule and the FPA, said establishing a pipeline for minority coaches to reach the NFL represents Phase One of the FPA.  Phase Two was implementing the Rooney Rule, creating a path for minorities to interview for the highest level of coaching and administrative positions.  “The third phase is what we’re just getting started in, and that’s the cultural change phase where you change the DNA of an organization, so diversity and merit-based decision making is free of bias,” Mehri said.  “That’s the phase we’re still struggling with.”

            Making a cultural change among NFL ownership is an ambitious goal and probably won’t be achieved unless there’s an incentive.  Awarding the most diverse organization in the NFL with an extra draft pick would be a start. The FPA can identify the winner. It might be the only way to get the owners’ attention.  This year, the FPA recognized the Charlotte Hornets as a “model for diversity in the sports industry,” with people of color holding positions at ownership, executive, and coaching levels.  In the NFL, such recognition should go to the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs.

If the NFL is genuinely a copy-cat league, then there should be a rush on minority coaches.   The Bucs of head coach Bruce Arians had the most diverse coaching staff in the league. All four coordinators—Byron Leftwich (offense), Todd Bowles (defense), Harold Goodwin (assistant head coach/running backs), and Keith Armstrong (special teams)–were black. Two full-time coaches were female – assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar.  The FPA on Tuesday honored Arians along with Ron Rivera, the head coach of the Washington Football Team that hired African-Americans as president, general manager, and the team’s first female full-time coach.  Rivera is just the third Latino to be a head coach in the NFL.   “Our job as coaches is to bring up the next group of coaches,” Arians said. “Diversity and inclusivity is the biggest part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We couldn’t have won the Super Bowl without it.”

            One early idea connected to the Rooney Rule called for teams to be docked draft picks if they failed to comply with the rule. There was immediate push back, yet the threat of repercussions is the main reason behind its enforcement. Perhaps the only way to achieve an actual cultural change is by giving teams incentive to embrace bias-free decision making.  An extra draft pick in the third round would go a long way toward achieving that goal.

            Anyone suggesting the Rooney Rule is no longer necessary is misguided. Implementing the Rooney Rule is a 365-day a year process as a “Ready List” of minority coaches is developed and presented to league owners each December.  Any potential candidate is advised how to create a coaching staff before the interviewing process begins.  The FPA also played a role in eliminating bias in grading African-American game-day officials that kept them from post-season assignments.  Those efforts ultimately led to the first-ever all-African-American officiating crew during the 2020 season.

“We’ve overcome a lot of barriers just by getting people of color in the interview process and expanding the Rooney Rule and by expanding the Rooney Rule to GM and other top positions,” Mehri said.  “We’ve seen diversity in so many ways, including women breaking barriers as coaches.”

Achieving Phase Three could prove to be the most difficult of all.


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