After a season in which overall ratings increased five percent and even more when you factor in the impact of streaming, it would seem that the NFL would be basking in positive publicity. But last week, despite the playoffs being about to start, the league got a lot more negative attention than it wanted in an area where it is already under fire: racial disparity.
Four Black coaches were fired last Monday, two of them after less than two years on the job and one after his rookie season as head coach. Five in all are now ex-head coaches. There have been 10 NFL coaches fired since 2000 after just one year, and three of those 10 were Black. The NFL boasted at the start of the season that they had the most Black coaches in recent history with seven. But after last Monday’s events, they’re down to two, Anthony Lynn of the Chargers and Mike Tomlin of the Steelers (and there were plenty of folks calling for HIS head).
Now to be sure, non-racial reasons and good ones can be made to explain these actions. For instance, the Bengals Marvin Lewis had served 16 years as their head coach and never won a playoff game. The fact he’d turned them from perennial doormats into a mostly competitive team couldn’t finally override the perception he’d been there too long and would never get them over the hump. No one’s going to claim he didn’t get a fair shot.
Hue Jackson going 3-31 in his time with Cleveland made them booting him predictable. The Broncos missed the playoffs in back to back seasons, so Vance Joseph was targeted as the reason. The Jets canned Todd Bowles after four seasons. Steve Wilks got just one year in Arizona, a situation that seems very unfair, as it was evident from day one this would be a rebuilding year there.
Still, when you’ve got a playing constituency that’s 70 percent Black, two head coaches in a 32-team league, to say nothing of just one general manager/player personnel director, doesn’t sit well with many people, and certainly doesn’t look very good.
Though some folks were upset with Tomlin and blame him for the Steelers’ demise this year, he’s been in the playoffs eight times in 12 years. The Steelers under Tomlin have won two AFC titles and one Super Bowl. He’s in no danger. Lynn’s Chargers were the NFL’s surprise team, winning 12 of 16 games and tying the Kansas City Chiefs for best record in the AFC. They lost the title on the conference tiebreaker, but Lynn should be the consensus NFL Coach of the Year.
The key question looming is how many Black head coaches will there be when next season begins. For all the criticism about the Rooney Rule lacking teeth, it’s still in place, which means there are a number of Black co-ordinators and/or assistants who at least must be interviewed for administrative openings around the NFL.
When September rolls around, the final numbers will determine how serious the NFL is about diversity and inclusion. Right now, they don’t look very good on those fronts.