We’re reminded again of NFL’s shameful lack of blacks in high places

Falcons assistant Raheem Morris confers with head coach Dan Quinn during a November game against Tampa Bay last season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Falcons assistant Raheem Morris confers with head coach Dan Quinn during a November game against Tampa Bay last season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

That there is an intrinsic insanity to the coaching profession is clear in the case of the Falcons’ Raheem Morris.

Morris began last season working with the Falcons’ receivers. He ended it calling third-down plays for the defense, sharing play-calling with Jeff Ulbrich in a strange synthesis that nonetheless led to some better work for the defense. Entering a sixth season with a team on which he has twice shuttled between offensive and defensive meeting rooms, he now owns the hard-won title of defensive coordinator.

And equally clear is that the path Morris has chosen, as an African-American coach in a business that struggles with diversity in high places, remains so very rocky and steep.

That was borne out again last week when the NFL began tinkering with the Rooney Rule, the statute designed to dress up the owners in a guise of righteousness. Something obviously isn’t working, because this billionaires club isn’t looking so enlightened right now.

Therefore, it was decreed that teams must interview more minority candidates than ever before for high-level coaching and front office vacancies. To what affect, that’s the question.

There are as many black head coaches in the league now – three – as there were in 2003, when the Rooney Rule was passed. In the past two years, there have been 13 coaching vacancies, and two of them filled by minority candidates.

Eric Bieniemy (who is black), the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, couldn’t get a head coaching job this year. But 38-year-old special-teams coach, Joe Judge (who is white), could, with the Giants.

The numbers can fluctuate. Morris was in his third and final seasons as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2011 when there was a high of eight black coaches in the league.

But here we are now with a shameful lack of representation in an enterprise where the work force is three-fourths black. Additionally, there are but two black GMs in the NFL. In the 2019 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card, issued annually by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, the NFL’s score was its lowest in 15 years.

The NFL is not alone in this, of course. In college football, according to a recent AP survey, there are only 13 black head coaches among 128 FBS programs – and just one each in the SEC and ACC. And where are the next head coaches to come from, as there are but 11 black coaches coordinating or co-coordinating offenses and 22 on defense?

Corporate America has its problems on this score. Baseball has consistently lagged on the issue. In the NBA, the Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce is one of seven African American head coaches in that 30-team league.

But to stay on point here, the subject this week was the NFL. “The facts are, we have a broken system and we’re looking to change where we are going, and it’s been going south, and not a gradual south,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations.

The numbers are dispiriting. One proposed remedy also struck an equally dismaying note.

Tabled was the suggestion that teams get a bump in the draft – they were looking at significant jumps in the third round – if they hire a minority coach or GM. An insulting proposition, really, as pointed out last week by one of the smartest guys at ESPN, Louis Riddick.

On air, Riddick, who was a runner-up for the Giants GM job at the end of 2017, called it ironic that here were the owners, “voting on something that they, in fact, are responsible for.” I might call that more hypocritical.

Riddick found it demeaning that clubs would have to be incentivized in order to hire a black head coach or exec when a good hire should be reward enough. And added that anyone hired under those circumstances would be undermined in the eyes of those they’d be asked to lead, as they quietly question whether he got the job on merit or by the grace of an improved draft position.

Or, as former head coach Tony Dungy put it in a podcast, “I just have never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing. And, so, I think there are going to be some unintended consequences.”

It is conceivable the NFL would revisit that idea – a bad idea, well-intentioned, but bad nevertheless.

This story never goes away. No matter how often a light is shined on the disparity, the view doesn’t change.

You wash out such a stain by a commitment to growing experience and opportunities, not by offering cheap favors late on the second day of the draft.

If owners need to concoct incentives in order to do what is right, then the shame goes even deeper than we suspect.

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