The 2020-21 NFL hiring cycle won’t officially close until the Houston Texans introduce their next head coach. For the league’s justifiably demoralized Black assistant coaches, however, the soul-crushing period actually ended long before it even began.
Because in the starkest manner yet, the league’s owners again revealed what’s most important to them, and fairness in hiring to lead their football teams didn’t make the list. A cycle that commissioner Roger Goodell hoped would result in the NFL significantly improving its poor employment record — especially after Goodell and his top lieutenants doubled their efforts to address this blight on professional sports’ most successful league — quickly became an indefensible embarrassment for hardworking officials who have diligently pushed owners to finally get on the right side of history. At every step of the way, NFL employees have been undermined by the people who fund their salaries. The evidence is extensive and irrefutable.
Once the Texans make their move, the seven head-coaching openings at the outset of this cycle will all have been filled. So far, owners are pitching a shutout: Six job openings, no Black guys hired.
At this point, many reading this space are undoubtedly thinking, “What about new New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh?” The former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator has the distinction of being the NFL’s first Muslim head coach. Saleh is a trailblazer. And any move that fosters improved diversity and inclusion, especially these days, should be acknowledged. The Lebanese American is immensely qualified, many league sources have told through the years, and the Jets enabled Saleh to kick down a door. Kudos to the Jets for their achievement (that’s sure not a sentence one often writes). It’s just that the Jets’ hiring of Saleh doesn’t move the ball even microscopically in the most important area for the league: the advancement of Black assistant coaches.
This bears repeating like never before: The NFL is an overwhelmingly Black league. In fact, it has never been Blacker.
The league’s on-field workforce is more than 70% Black. Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, 29 are Black. Young superstar Black quarterbacks now set the league’s agenda. Moreover, the best among them, Kansas City Chiefs wunderkind Patrick Mahomes, is the new face of the NFL. And yet, the careers of Black assistants continue to be harmed, perhaps irreparably, by the owners’ closed-minded outlook on filling their top-rung coaching positions. Perhaps owners, of which the vast majority are white (there are only two owners of color in the NFL – neither of whom are Black), need a refresher on why this is a bad place for them.
Back in 2001, the number of Black head coaches stood at one after two were fired following the season. To that point, the NFL, which is completing its 101st season, had only six Black head coaches in its history.
Frustrated by the numbers, civil rights lawyers Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. initiated a process that prompted the league to engage with them. Their dialogue eventually led to the creation of the Rooney Rule. In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule — named after the late Dan Rooney, the admired former Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs.
Through the years, the rule, which has come to include all coaches of color, has been roundly and correctly criticized as ineffective. The NFL, which has 32 teams, has never had more than eight head coaches of color and seven general managers of color. In an attempt to spur owners to seriously consider more candidates of color, the league has modified the rule and even incentivized inclusive hiring for the first time, awarding compensatory draft picks to franchises that lose executives and assistant coaches who become general managers and head coaches elsewhere.
Of the seven general manager positions initially open this cycle, three were filled by Black people, bringing the total number of Black general managers to five. But in management, head coaches are the faces of franchises. With only one spot remaining, the NFL hasn’t added any new Black ones.
Beyond the lack of progress on the coaching front, the inequitable process has left many Black assistants believing that the league has gone backward. It’s impossible to ignore the double standard at play, several say. In most cases, the bar to advance is so high for them, they can’t even see it.
The story of new Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni sums up the depressing state of play.
Formerly the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator, Sirianni did not have playcalling duties in his previous post. Often, Black assistants won’t be considered for openings unless they’ve called plays. Furthermore, an anecdote emerged that when the Eagles planned to interview him, Sirianni was on vacation and he didn’t have a suit. To make Sirianni comfortable during a Zoom call, Eagles officials dressed casually. Well, of course they did.
Look, nothing against Sirianni, who may wind up being successful, but he lacked the appropriate clothes that are traditionally considered standard to interview for the job. You know the game is rigged in your favor when you don’t even possess the most basic requirement to play, and the rules are changed on the spot for you to win.
The Josh McCown situation also takes a blowtorch to the myth about the playing field being level. For their opening, the Texans interviewed the longtime NFL backup who has no coaching experience. Let that sink in. If white players suddenly start walking straight from the field to the head coach’s office without even being required to serve fast-track coaching apprenticeships, well, then that’s a wrap for Black assistants. Talk about adding another major hurdle to a landscape already teeming with them.
It’s not clear what the path forward is for Black assistants, or even if there is one, to persuade owners to open their eyes and see what they’re missing. When the Chiefs face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers’ offense, defense and special teams will be led by Black coordinators. Likewise, a Black man guides the Chiefs’ offense. There are so many sharp Black assistants deserving of opportunities to take the next step. And based on what we’ve seen, it’s highly unlikely most will get the chance to move their feet.
Maybe it’s time for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity, to take a much more aggressive posture with owners. Corporate America has responded to the national reckoning on systemic racism by, among other things, being much more circumspect than previously about with whom to partner. Granted, in terms of making money, the NFL is the platinum standard for sports leagues. But during these fraught times, maybe some of its corporate partners are growing restless about the league’s awful hiring optics and would like to see change. At the very least, it’s definitely time for the question to be asked.
A brutal hiring cycle has reminded us that in the NFL, only white is right. And for the owners to consider changing, they’ll likely first have to become concerned about their favorite color: green.