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MLK, the national football league and the dearth of black head coaches

Judson L. Jeffries

2013-02-06, Issue 615

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Until the ranks of the head coaches and upper management in the US National Football League have been thoroughly integrated, Dr. King’s dream will remain a work in progress

As we reflect on the work, contribution and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must acknowledge the stark reality that in many facets of American life Dr. King’s dream has not yet been realized. The National Football League in the US is certainly one example where seventy percent of its players are African American, but few of its coaches are of the same hue. Currently Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh and Leslie Frazier of Minnesota stand as the only African American head coaches in the thirty-two team National Football League, prompting some analysts to question the league’s commitment to diversity in that particular area. This criticism comes on the heels of the firing of Chicago Bears Head Coach Love Smith and Kansas City Chiefs Head Coach Romeo Crennel. In the days surrounding their release, six other head coaches were relieved of their duties as well; all of whom were white. One of them, longtime head coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles landed the head coaching job with the Kansas City Chiefs less than a week later, despite coming off a 4-12 record and a 8-8 record the previous year.
Smith and Crennel are still unemployed. Crennel’s firing was not unexpected after an abysmal 2-14 campaign, but some question Smith’s dismissal as he led the Bears to a 10-6 record. Others are quick to point out, however, that Smith’s Bears failed to make the playoffs six out of the nine years he served as head coach. Only fourteen African Americans have served as full-time head coaches in the NFL’s modern era. Art Shell was the first; hired by Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis in 1989—the team for which Shell starred as its perennial all-pro tackle. Incidentally that same year, the voters of the state of Virginia, once considered the capital of the confederacy elected L. Douglas Wilder as its governor, making him the first Black elected governor in the country’s history.
In an effort to address the dearth of Black head coaches, the NFL established the Rooney Rule, named for Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chairman of the league’s diversity committee, which stipulates that NFL owners looking to fill head coaching vacancies must interview one minority candidate. The thinking here is that by interviewing a minority candidate, it forces owners to bring in prospects that otherwise might not have been considered. The Rooney Rule also affords minority candidates an opportunity to gain valuable interviewing experience, become familiar with the hiring process, appear on the radar of NFL teams and/or possibly make a lasting impression that may stand the candidate in good stead with a potentially future employer perhaps somewhere down the line.
The problem is that the Rooney Rule, now in its tenth year, has not yielded the results that the NFL’s diversity committee had envisioned it would. Since the edict was enacted, less than a dozen African Americans have been hired as full-time head coaches. To be sure, the Rooney Rule is a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient in that it does not ensure racial balance within the head coaching ranks. For example, in 2003, the Detroit Lions filled a head coaching slot without interviewing a minority candidate; the NFL immediately slapped the franchise with a $200,000 fine. Front office executives with the Detroit Lions claimed that the team was all set to interview a minority candidate, but he withdrew, because he believed that ownership had already agreed to hire Steve Mariucci, but had simply not made an official announcement; electing instead to wait until a minority candidate was interviewed so as to be in compliance with the Rooney Rule.
A few years ago the Seattle Seahawks, identified Pete Carroll, formerly of USC, as their new head coach only to realize that offering Carroll the job without having interviewed a minority candidate was in direct violation of the Rooney Rule. In a purely symbolic gesture the Seahawks, at the eleventh hour, hurriedly extended an invitation to a minority candidate, purportedly, as a show of good faith. Why the minority candidate elected to participate in this charade is unclear.
Landing a head coaching job in the NFL is a luxury not an inherent right; hence it would be unconstitutional to require NFL owners to hire African Americans to serve as head coach of their respective teams. However, if affirmative action is to win out in the manner that Hobart Taylor Jr. and the other architects of this program visualized, the Rooney Rule has to invoke stiffer sanctions (i.e. heavier fines, loss of draft picks) for circumventing the rule as well as offer incentives for not only making a genuine effort to comply with the decree, but for actually hiring a minority candidate as head coach. There has been talk about applying the Rooney Rule to lower-level coaches as well, which is another good step in the right direction. However, why stop there? The general manager position should also come under the umbrella that is the Rooney Rule. While the owner ultimately makes the decision on whom to bring in as the head coach, the general manager is often not without influence.
While integration, (the result of a battle waged by the Civil Rights Movement of which Dr. King was the face), has indeed brought about drastic changes in the complexion of American sports, much of that change has transpired on the court and field of play. Until the ranks of the head coaches and upper management have been thoroughly integrated Dr. King’s dream will remain a work in progress.

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*Judson L. Jeffries

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