An old issue got a boost from a new and unexpected source last week. At at the latest NFL meetings, some new voices were heard, and they weren’t the usual speakers. Instead four of the NFL’s top white head coaches spoke directly to the owners, urging them to stop excluding worthy Black candidates from the head coaching ranks.

John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, Pete Carroll from the Seattle Seahawks, Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and and Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts didn’t hold back in their statements to owners about the importance of hiring Black coaches and their previous failures in that area.

These coaches also talked about how important pass associations were with Black coaches, how their own careers had been aided and boosted through their associations with their Black coaching peers. Most importantly, they took the owners to task for a process that not only has failed to hire more Black head coaches but in many instances hasn’t even taken them seriously as candidates. That’s the allegation posed by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, currently suing both the NFL and several clubs for what he deems a racist and sham process in dealing with vacancies and possible Black head coaches. Flores was fired by the Dolphins despite having a winning record over his tenure and being the first Dolphins coach to post consecutive winning seasons since 2003, going 10-6 in 2020 and 9-8 in 2021

Flores filed his 38-page lawsuit last February and is awaiting its resolution. He’s currently serving as a defensive assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Among the many contentions raised in his suit, he accuses the Dolphins of firing him in part because he refused to deliberately lose games, and claims both the Giants and Broncos engaged in sham interviews with him to satisfy the Rooney Rule, a provision that mandates every coaching and executive opening in the NFL include interviews with at least one (now two) minority candidates. Both the Broncos and Giants deny Flores’ allegations, as do the Dolphins.

Interestingly, Art Rooney, current Steelers’ owner and son of Dan Rooney who created the rule, praised the white coaches who spoke out at the meeting. 

“Maybe some people didn’t like what was said,” Rooney told USA Today. “When you open the the floor you get this type of honesty. There were some things that owners wouldn’t agree with.” One of the things that folks don’t like to acknowledge is that the lack of Black faces in both ownership and administration are a major part of the problem. There doesn’t seem to be any problem with teams having heavily Black playing rosters. More than two-thirds of this year’s NFL on the field is Black.

It’s off the field where the problems persist. There have been 72 NFL head coach openings over the last 10 years. Only 14 of them have been filled by Blacks. This season there are four Black head coaches on the 32 teams, plus one Latino (Ron Rivera) and one Muslim (Robert Saleh). Mike McDaniel is biracial, wants to be counted that way in official records.

The newest Black head coach is Steve Wilks, who is interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers and former head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Wilks only got one season at Arizona, being canned after a 3-13 season, a firing many felt premature and unjustified. The hope this time is that Wilks will get a fair shot this time with the Panthers.

The NFL’s other Black head coaches are the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, who’s been there 16 years, new Houston Texans’ head coach Lovie Smith, and Todd Bowles’s, now at Tampa Bay. Bowles situation is emblematic of what often happens with Black head coaches. He had a 10-win season early in his tenure with the Jets, but then got fired in 2019 despite having already previously signed an extenson. Former Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians, a longtime champion for Black coaches, insisted when he retired that Bowles takes his place. 

It will be instructive as the season unfolds to see which teams eventually have openings and how Black candidates are treated. The feeling remains that too many owners simply do not want a Black head coach to be the face of their franchise. Until the numbers improve, no matter how much the NFL and its owners insist that this feeling is untrue, that perception will remain.