A couple of years ago it looked like perhaps the National Football League had turned the corner in dealing with a persistent problem: getting more Black head coaches. A record number of Blacks were leading teams and it seemed perhaps a new and positive trend was definitely underway.
But flash forward to the present and things suddenly look as dreary as they did before. At press time there had been four vacancies filled, all by whites. Unless the Cleveland Browns break the pattern, when the new season begins, there will be a grand total of three Black coaches in the NFL, plus one Latino in Ron Rivera, out of 32 teams.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has been in charge of a high powered and successful unit and helped turn QB Patrick Mahomes into last year’s NFL MVP. He’s also interviewed seven times for head coaching jobs over the past two seasons. Yet he’s been passed over, while white college coaches with minimal pro experience or coordinators who previously had far less responsibilities have gotten head jobs.
Thus far Bieniemy has not lashed out about the situation, but other Black assistants certainly have voiced their objections. Steelers’ assistant Darryl Drake has been a receivers coach since 2004, but never gotten a shot at a head coaching position. At 62, he watches much younger and far less experienced whites get hired left and right. “ There are so many qualified minority coaches, which is why the reaction among them is not good, “ he told NFL.com last summer. “A lot of guys I felt certain that should have had opportunities to get a job did not get a job.”
Another thing that has hurt Black coaches who did get the opportunity in some instances was a quick trigger on the part of ownership because they didn’t instantly produce a drastic turnaround. Steve Wilks got one season in Arizona and was bounced, while Vance Joseph got two in Denver before getting booted. Neither man had a top flight QB, and neither’s replacement has had better success thus far.
It’s encouraging that the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn wasn’t fired in the wake of their regression from playoff team two years ago to this year’s dud. Likewise Brian Flores in his first season with Miami seems to be getting a decent shot to develop a system and build a team, as opposed to being expected to produce an instant winner with minimal talent. But Flores was the only new Black coach hired last season. Rivera was fired at Carolina this year, but resurfaced with Washington.
Some are saying that the current track record represents a failing of the Rooney Rule, in place since 2003. But that rule only mandates an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate. Since 2009 it has been expanded to include general manager or equivalent front office jobs.
Still, as with all affirmative action type programs, this rule cannot dictate or mandate hiring. There are 32 NFL owners, 31 of them white males or females (Jacksonville’s owner is Asian). The ugly truth is these folks are hiring the people they feel most comfortable with to be in front office suites and positions of power. So far, seldom is the case that they hire Black men or women
Those who talk about ownership as the answer to the issue miss two important factors. First, to even qualify for ownership you must belong to a highly exclusive class: billionaire or access to a billion dollar income group. Second, you must win the approval of the other owners, something that has kept some big money whites out of the club.
There may well be a Black majority (at least 30 percent single ownership) owner or ownership group someday. But it isn’t coming soon, and certainly not fast enough to alleviate the present crisis. NFL owners must decide Blacks should have the opportunity to do more than just score touchdowns and earn them millions on the field. Until more do, nothing much is going to change, and no good faith rule will matter.