NFL team owners going backward on hiring black coaches

Any discussion about the pathetic number of black NFL head coaches inevitably leads to protestations that hires should be about the best person for the job, not the race of the candidate. This is what is known as a tell.

Implied in that point of view is that the current three black NFL head coaches among 32 is the result of a hiring (and firing) system that is a color-blind meritocracy. The evidence does not support that perspective. That’s why NFL owners were forced to revamp their hiring practices in the first place.

The main part of that effort, the so-called Rooney Rule, got some results. It helped lead to 22 minority (non-white) coaches hired in the 16 years from 2003-19. There were only four black NFL coaches in the 16 years before that. There were six black coaches over NFL’s first 80 years.

Now the NFL has three black coaches: Brian Flores (Miami), Anthony Lynn (L.A. Chargers) and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh). That’s the same number as when the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule. There were seven black NFL head coaches to begin the 2018 season.

None of the league’s principal franchise owners are black. They’ve never hired as many black coaches as they should. Now they are going backward. Most of the workers for their business are black, but a small number of black people are in upper management.

About 70 percent of the NFL’s players are black. More than half of NCAA football players are black. NFL teams draw almost exclusively from that pool of people to hire coaches. White coaches are getting top management jobs disproportionate to their numbers in the candidate pool.

That's not happening because black head coaches don't win when they get their chance. ESPN's Luke Knox collected data on the performance of head coaches from 2003-18, including winning expectations based on Las Vegas sportsbook projections.  His conclusion:

“(T)he available data suggest that minority coaches aren’t given tenures as long as their white counterparts, although they win more frequently. And while minority hires also lose more frequently, they take over a higher rate of bad teams in Year 1.”

Winning means more money for franchise owners, so there should be no financial disincentive against hiring black head coaches. They can be required to interview black candidates, but it doesn’t mean they will hire them. It certainly doesn’t mean franchise owners will do any introspection about why there are so few black head coaches, or care about it.

It took the threat of a lawsuit to get their attention. After two of three black NFL coaches were fired in 2001, attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran commissioned a study. Penn professor Janice Fadden Manning examined coaching performance over the previous 15 years.

Wrote Manning: “No matter how we look at success, black coaches are performing better.”  That busted the myth of best person hired for the job. Mehri and Cochran threatened litigation if NFL owners didn’t do something to address the inequality of head coaching opportunities for black candidates.

Franchise owners agreed to adopt the Rooney Rule. Teams with head coach vacancies were required to interview candidates who are ethnic minorities. In 2009 the rule was extended to include openings for senior football executives.

NFL teams started hiring more black coaches. Those coaches won even though, as Knox’s study showed, they were hired by some of the worse teams. Black coaches kept proving themselves. Yet the NFL is back to the same number of black head coaches as before the Rooney Rule.

It’s good that more black candidates are in the NFL’s head coach pipeline. Hiring standards are ultimately subjective, though. Media boosting of candidates plays a factor. With objective qualifications, team owners can always raise the bar for some, lower it for others.

For example, the path to NFL head coach long has included being an NFL coordinator. Prove you can successfully run an offense or defense at the pro level, then get your shot to run the whole show. Makes sense.

But now offensive coaches are favored for head coach positions. Among the 32 NFL teams this season, there were two black offensive coordinators and 10 black defensive coordinators. The goalposts have moved again.

Chiefs assistant Eric Bieniemy is one of the black offensive coordinators. He’s been passed over for six head coaching jobs in the past two off seasons. Kansas City was first in points scored in 2018 and fifth this season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes credits Bieniemy with helping him become league MVP. Coach Andy Reid has implored teams to hire Bieniemy as head coach.

It won’t happen this year unless the Browns hire Bieniemy for their open position. Maybe his chances are hurt because Reid calls the plays. That didn’t hold back ex-Reid offensive coordinators Doug Pederson (Eagles) and Matt Nagy (Bears) in recent years. As I said, the goalposts are always moving.

Joe Judge ended up on the right side of them. The Giants just hired him as head coach though he’s never been a head coach or top coordinator at any level of football. Judge had been a special-teams assistant (later coordinator) for the Patriots since 2012 and a position coach for one season. Judge is white, of course.

Some readers may look at my photo and conclude that I’m biased about this subject. That would be another tell. The evidence suggests that it’s white NFL franchise owners who are racially biased in their hiring practices. That should bother all fair-minded people.

In 2003, attorneys Mehri and Cochran produced a report based on Manning’s peer-reviewed study. The title: “Black Coaches in the NFL: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities.” It was true then, and it’s true now.

NFL owners should be embarrassed by it, but I doubt they are. Their profits keep flowing. The public trough for stadium subsidies is still open for feeding. The Congress won’t touch the NFL’s antitrust exemption.

Perhaps advocates for black coaches need to change their approach. The Rooney Rule was a pioneering idea, but NFL owners are still dragging their feet. Shaming them doesn’t work. The threat of litigation spurred NFL team owners to act 18 years ago. Maybe it’s time to drag them to court now.