Some numbers just don’t add up. Nearly 60% of NFL players are black. A little under half of the assistant coaches are black. And yet, fresh off another coaching cycle, the only black head coaches in the NFL are Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Houston’s Lovie Smith, and Miami’s Mike McDaniel, who is biracial. That means that less than 10% of the teams in the NFL are coached by a black man.
This is hardly a new problem. The overwhelming majority of NFL head coaches have been white men, and you’re delusional, if not hateful, if you think there haven’t been a myriad of qualified African American prospects that never got a look. The NFL admits this, and in 2003, they implemented the “Rooney Rule,” named after Steelers owner, Dan Rooney, which dictates that a NFL team must interview at least one black candidate before making a hire. When that rule was installed in 2003, the NFL had three black coaches. When the preseason kicks off in August, the NFL will have three black coaches. Why is that?
The Fatal Flaw in the Rooney Rule
You see it in the names that are brought up every single year. You see it in some of the more bizarre hires, and some of the more noteworthy interviews. There’s a proven bias towards bringing in white men, and often, it’s not deserved.
Sure, there’s guys like Jim Harbaugh, who was “happy” at Michigan, but was also floated around for a bunch of jobs this year, despite not having coached in the NFL since he was fired after the 2014 season.
But coach Harbaugh is respected in the NFL. He was one penalty away from winning a championship. What about some of the other strange names that have been interviewed, let alone hired, for coaching jobs over the last few years?
Yes, that Josh McCown. The long-time NFL backup quarterback that spent time on 12 different NFL teams. There’s definitely a correlation between backup quarterbacks and having success in the NFL, but usually they have some coaching experience in the NFL. With the exception of volunteering for his son’s high school team, Josh McCown has never done any coaching. That didn’t stop him from being a coaching finalist for the Houston Texans this very coaching cycle.
Ignoring the fact that Josh McDaniels’ claim to fame is being the offensive coordinator for the single greatest quarterback in the history of professional football, ignoring the fact that he flopped hard as the head coach of the Denver Broncos, ignoring the fact that like his mentor, Bill Belichick, McDaniels was caught cheating, ignoring that McDaniels spent a first round pick on Tim Tebow, planning to use him as a quarterback, and ignoring the fact that as the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, they were dead last in the NFL, Josh McDaniels agreed to be the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, gathered a staff, and was basically en route to the big horseshoe… when he got cold feet and backed out on them.
The Colts missed out on several big name coaching prospects because they thought they had their hire in the bag, and McDaniels left them high and dry. They ended up getting Frank Reich, who has done a decent job, but it’s an undeniably scummy move from the man the Las Vegas Raiders had no issue with hiring over the likes of Todd Bowles and DeMeco Ryans.
Urban Meyer couldn’t even hold down a job in college, but that didn’t stop Shad Khan from overlooking a plethora of up-and-coming coaching prospects, including a former Jaguars QB, Byron Leftwich, to raise the chosen one, quarterback Trevor Lawrence. A history of off-the-field issues and bailing on jobs just as the hammer came down didn’t scare Khan off, and he didn’t blink when Meyer hired Chris Doyle, a strength coach infamous for being a racist bully, or when Meyer skipped the team flight from Ohio to cheat on his wife. It took an argument with Trevor Lawrence to finally get Meyer fired.
Infamously, Jon Gruden spent a decade in the booth before Raiders owner Mark Davis essentially handed him the keys to the kingdom. Gruden was fired because after he won a championship (with a team that Tony Dungy built), his teams drastically declined, notoriously falling apart as the weather got colder. He was away from the sideline for ten years, becoming the wacky color commentator on Monday Night Football, before Davis offered him complete control of the team, a ten-year contract, and $100 million to coach the Raiders again.
It was a hilariously bad mistake, as most people predicted, because he alienated half the locker room, trading franchise pillars like Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack away for picks he essentially wasted, and true to form, fell apart in December every year.
Gruden was eventually forced to resign after his racist, homophobic, and sexist emails were leaked to the public. Who were those emails to? Hmm. Interestingly enough, all we really know is that it was someone high up in the Washington office. I wonder if they’re having any controversy over there.
Adam Gase, who got hired purely based on proximity to Peyton Manning, got not one, but two coaching opportunities. A so-called “quarterback wizard” couldn’t generate any offense in Miami and then consistently had one of the league’s worst offenses in New York. Again, he was bad with the Dolphins, but because he was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator once, he got a second coaching opportunity. That’s two more jobs than Byron Leftwich or Eric Bienemy have received, though their critics insist they’ve been a product of elite quarterback play.
These are the kinds of coaches that are consistently offered interviews and jobs. There are only 32 head coaching jobs in the NFL, so it is a hard gig to land, but these are the kinds of men being interviewed consistently, if for no other reason than social connections and big name pizazz.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Since 2000, nearly half of the NFL hasn’t had a black head coach. The Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, and Atlanta Falcons have not had a black head coach since the turn of the millennia, and truth be told, it’s even bleaker than it looks.
Because while 17 other teams have employed a black head coach? We’re talking about Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, Dennis Green, Romeo Crennel, Art Shell, Mike Singletary, Jim Caldwell, Raheem Morris, Leslie Frazier, Hue Jackson, Todd Bowles, Vance Joseph, Anthony Lynn, Steve Wilks, Brian Flores, David Culley, and Mike McDaniel. That’s twenty men over the course of 22 hiring cycles. When you consider that the Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns combine for 23 coaching changes during that same span? It’s unforgivable.
But it gets worse! Because since 2010, those numbers have inexplicably gotten lower. Since 2010, only Frazier (three seasons), Jackson (one and done in Oakland, two seasons in Cleveland), Crennell (one and done in Kansas City), Lovie Smith (two seasons in Tampa), Caldwell (four seasons, fired after a 9-7 campaign), Bowles (four years in New York), Joseph (two seasons in Denver), Lynn (four seasons and a winning record in San Diego), Wilks (one and done), Flores (fired for a TON of drama after two winning seasons), and Culley (one and done) have coached in the NFL. That’s an average of one hire a season, and a tenure of just about two and a half seasons.
The frequency of coaching availability versus retention of black coaches despite reasonable success is alarming. Especially when you consider how many white coaches get a second chance? Adam Gase, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Doug Pederson, Bruce Arians, and Mike McCarthy are all coaches who have are on, at the very least, their second head coaching stint in the NFL.
The Harsh Reality
The harsh reality is that the answer is hidden in plain sight. It’s a bit obvious, if you think about it. Hell, it’s right in the name of this article.
Since it’s true that that majority of the NFL is black, there should be an obvious pipeline from being a player to being an assistant coach, creating if anything, a 50/50 balance. But there’s an issue. Because while 60% of the NFL is black, none of the owners are. Not one of the 32 NFL teams is owned by a black man, and ultimately, it is the owners who make the hires.
And make no mistake, this isn’t a group of open-minded idealists. The youngest NFL owner is Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, who is 56 years old and inherited the team. The youngest owner who didn’t get a NFL franchise from their father? The 57 year old Dan Snyder, who is currently being investigated, not only for harassing his employees, but for perpetuating a culture that actively encourages, if not celebrates, doing it. The late, great Al Davis was a symbol of equal opportunity in the NFL, but his son Mark has not shared those some values, making a mockery of the Rooney Rule in his pursuit of Jon Gruden, and has only hired white coaches since his father’s passing. During the the advent of players taking a knee to protest police brutality, late Texans owner Bob McNair infamously compared the act to “inmates running the prison.”
Old Boy’s Club
As of this writing, only three NFL owners are under the age of 60 and half of the owners in the league inherited the franchise from someone else, and if you want to buy a team, it’s not as simple has having a few billion dollars lying around.
Firstly, one person has to own the team. You can put a team together to raise the funds, but one person gets to put their name on the check. Secondly, there’s some weird, unclear verbiage about whether or not you can own other sports teams. Thirdly, absolutely no connections to gambling, so casino magnates need not apply. And finally, most infuriatingly, three quarters of the existing owners need to approve it.
And that’s where it gets sticky. Because the same people who collectively own a league where nearly 91% of their coaches are white, get a say in who can buy a team. And you might say they’ll prioritize business acumen over their personal feelings, but they had no problem letting Jimmy Haslam or Dan Snyder own teams, while locking the likes of Mark Cuban out. Jacksonville’s Shad Khan, who originally tried to buy the Los Angeles Rams, was told “you’ll never get approved because you’re not white.”
Straight out of the Godfather, families that have worked together for almost a century get to pick who joins their prestigious club, and it’s become apparent that the money is nothing more than the application fee. Even George R.R. Martin balks at how incestuous the NFL is.
It’s depressing, but we really do have an “old boys club” that doesn’t seem interested in hiring anyone other than people who look like them. Even Shad Khan, who himself was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to buy a NFL team because he wasn’t white, passed up on coaches like Byron Leftwich, Brian Flores, and Eric Bienemy to hire Urban Meyer, and now Doug Pederson.
In a narrative you’ve never heard before, the status quo won’t change as long as the decision makers remain the same. As long as the 32 franchises are owned by the same families with the same faces, it’s hard to imagine a world where we see significant change. The Denver Broncos are for sale right now, and are uniquely positioned to make that change, to make the future of the NFL a brighter, more diverse one.
Until that happens though, the owners will hide from the criticism, putting their favorite proxy, Roger Goodell, front and center to puke out pleasantries and performative theatre. Bill O’Brien, who traded DeAndre Hopkins for “having too many baby mamas” will get another head coaching job, but Jim Caldwell, who had two losing seasons in seven years, will not. Retreads like Dennis Allen and Doug Pederson will get another go, but Eric Bienemy and Raheem Morris will have to remain coordinators on championship teams.
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