“More than half the players in the NFL are Black, and most coaches have played the game at some level. That would seem to be the perfect recipe for Black coaches to find success. But most NFL owners have been white men, and they have seldom been willing to let African Americans or Latinos call plays — either on the field or from the sidelines. This is no different from when franchises presumed that Black players weren’t smart enough to play quarterback and lacked leadership skills to command men. The league’s paltry record of hiring minority head coaches comes from the same mind-set. And its primary effort to address the problem has been a failure, because a policy can’t compensate for ignorance.” — Jemele Hill
Three days before Brian Flores was scheduled to interview for the position of head coach with the New York Giants, he received a text from New England Patriots general manager Bill Belichick congratulating him on getting the job.
Except Belichick thought he was texting Brian Daboll. The Giants not only had decided to hire Daboll before even interviewing Flores, but already was sharing the information with others.
Belichick’s flub illuminated what has long been an open secret in the NFL: too often, complying with the “Rooney Rule,” which requires league teams to interview candidates of color for head coaching and senior football operation jobs, is an empty gesture — a fig leaf to conceal the owners’ indifference to achieving racial parity among top coaching and executive positions.
As head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Flores led the team out of a 20-year slump to consecutive winning seasons between 2020 and 2021. Rather than celebrate his success, Dolphin’s owner Stephen M. Ross fired him. And rather than leap at the chance to hire Flores — or at least seriously consider him — the Giants used his sham interview to create the false impression that a Black candidate had a legitimate chance at obtaining the job.
Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL, the Giants, the Dolphins and the Denver Broncos — whom he accuses of conducting a similar sham interview in 2019 — has brought to a head the league’s shameful history of racial discrimination and persistent indifference to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Civil rights leaders, including myself, met Monday with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, challenging the league to establish specific recruiting and hiring procedures for executive and coaching positions, with meaningful consequences for teams that do not abide by the rules. We agreed to continue collaborating and advising the league to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion at every level of the NFL and its member teams.
The lawsuit cites some appalling statistics. While 70% of NFL players are Black, not one of its 32 team owners is Black. The only team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, employs a Black head coach. Only four teams employ a Black offensive coordinator — a position generally regarded as a steppingstone to head coach. Only 11 teams employ a Black defensive coordinator.
As Flores’ lawsuit alleges, this is not by chance. A 2016 study of the NFL found that white assistant coaches were 114% more likely to get promoted to the coordinator position than coaches of color with the same experience, education, and track record. The study found that it takes nine years before a white coach has a greater than 50% chance of becoming a coordinator, compared with 14 years for a nonwhite coach. The authors estimated that over a 20-year career, a white coach is likely to earn over $20 million more than his nonwhite counterpart.
These challenges are not insurmountable. Consider the success of a memorandum of understanding that telecom giant Comcast signed with the National Urban League and other civil rights organizations in 2010. Among other provisions, the memorandum committed Comcast to establish specific, measurable goals for diversity and inclusion in corporate governance, workforce retention and recruitment, procurement, programming, along with philanthropy and community investments. According to Comcast’s most recent report, people of color make up 44.3% of its workforce, 18.8% of whom are Black. As part of its effort to increase diversity among top executives, the company established a boot camp for mid-level vice president candidates, including no less than 80% diverse candidates. More than 22% of positions of vice president and above now are filled by people of color, and the company has committed to a goal of 33% people of color at every level of its workforce.
There’s no reason the NFL can’t replicate this success. It simply requires a sincere commitment on the part of the owners and league executives.
As Flores’ legal team has said, his lawsuit presents the NFL with an “opportunity to engage in substantive change.” The National Urban League and our sister civil rights groups will do everything in our power to make sure that opportunity is not squandered.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.