LAS VEGAS – At the end of the NFL’s 2022 hiring cycle, things looked bleak for the league’s proponents of inclusive hiring.
Although the NFL’s on-field workforce is overwhelmingly Black, only two of its 32 teams were led by Black coaches. During that cycle, the Miami Dolphins fired coach Brian Flores, who is Afro Latino, after he became the franchise’s first leader to have consecutive winning seasons since 2002 and 2003.
Flores filed a lawsuit in 2022, seeking class-action status (it’s proceeding to trial), and alleging widespread racial discrimination in the NFL’s hiring practices. And over the previous four hiring cycles to that point, there had been 27 openings for coaches. Only three Black men were hired.
The combination of Flores’ legal action and the glaring lack of opportunities for the NFL’s Black assistant coaches to climb the coaching ladder prompted league commissioner Roger Goodell to address what many within the league viewed as a crisis. Shortly before Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in 2022, Goodell sent a memo to all 32 clubs saying that the league understood the concerns expressed by Flores and others, and that it would initiate a comprehensive review of its approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Fast-forward to today, however, and the NFL can point to progress in the hiring of minority professionals at the club level.
After reviewing its approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, the NFL, at Goodell’s direction, implemented new programs designed to improve hiring throughout the league. One put minority candidates for positions in football and business operations in the same room – many for the first time – with franchise owners. Another focused exclusively on coaches and is the first hiring mandate in the league’s history.
As the NFL awaits the start Super Bowl LVIII between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium, the league’s highest-ranking leaders have reason to be pleased about gains made in inclusive hiring on and off the field. Having moved to address the hiring problem, officials hoped for clear signs of improvement during this cycle. They got what they wanted.
With the promotion of Jerod Mayo by the New England Patriots, and the hiring Raheem Morris by the Atlanta Falcons and Antonio Pierce by the Las Vegas Raiders, the NFL’s number of Black coaches doubled from three to six. The newcomers join Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, DeMeco Ryans of the Houston Texans – who’s expected to be selected as the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year after leading Houston to a division title in his first season – and the dean of the group, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What’s more, the cycle has been good for coaches of color overall.
Dave Canales, the Carolina Panthers’ new coach, is Mexican American. Coaches of color were hired for four of the eight coaching openings this cycle. Mike McDaniel of the Dolphins, who is biracial, and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets are the league’s other minority coaches.
The gains among head coaches are especially important because they’re the faces of football operations, said Rod Graves, who runs the independent group that advises the league on inclusive hiring.
Graves, formerly both an NFL general manager and a senior vice president in the commissioner’s office, expressed excitement that the cycle began with Mayo’s promotion from New England’s linebackers coach to its top coach, continued with Pierce having the interim tag removed in Las Vegas and that Morris, formerly the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator, returned to lead Atlanta, where he worked as an assistant from 2015-19.
“The hirings of Mayo, Pierce and Morris set off a great start to this year’s hiring cycle,” Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a text to Andscape. “All three coaches undoubtedly benefited from the time they spent with their teams. They earned the respect and confidence of team owners.”
Of course, according to Graves and league officials, there’s still plenty of work to do.
Flores, who just completed his first season as the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator, is still awaiting his day in court. A federal judge ruled in July 2023 that Flores’ racial discrimination suit against the league and the New York Giants, the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins — which has been joined by longtime NFL coaches Steve Wilks and Ray Horton — will go to trial, but some of the plaintiffs’ claims must proceed through arbitration because of clauses in their employment contracts with their former clubs.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit and arbitration, many of the issues Flores brought to light still are present in the NFL, league officials acknowledge. One encouraging hiring cycle won’t change that.
It appears, however, that the NFL is committed to remaining on its current track, according to law professor N. Jeremi Duru.
A professor of sports law at American University in Washington, Duru is a leading expert on the NFL’s hiring practices. He’s also the author of the definitive book on the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.
Duru is more encouraged than ever about the NFL’s state of play.
“The NFL over the last several years has really been intentional about driving home to the clubs the importance of considering diverse candidates for … leadership positions. And the fruits of this intentionality are emerging,” he wrote to Andscape in a text message. “There is plenty of work left to be done, but we are definitely seeing progress toward leveling the playing field for candidates of color.”
Goodell acknowledged the league has a problem. And after he pushed team owners to make changes, a payoff has come during this hiring cycle. But will it only be a one-off?