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NFL's Coaching Diversity Problem


If you're listening to this conversation in between planning your snack and viewing schedule for the NFL playoffs, we'll make this quick. For everybody else, this is the time of year when many NFL teams - those that did not make it to the playoffs, whose seasons are already over - fire their head coaches and hire new ones. And after a recent spate of hirings, this fact jumps out. None of the open head coaching jobs went to African Americans. There are now just three black head coaches among the 32 teams in the league, the lowest number since 2003, when the NFL implemented the so-called Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for a head coach vacancy, this in a sport where 70% of the players are African American.

We wanted to know more about this, so we've called N. Jeremi Duru. He teaches sports and entertainment law at American University Washington College of Law. And he advises the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation. That's an advocacy group formed to advance minority representation in leadership roles throughout the NFL. He's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. N. Jeremi Duru, thanks so much for talking to us.

N JEREMI DURU: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, let me clarify that the Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least one nonwhite coach. The NFL team in Washington, D.C., did hire Ron Rivera, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. But as we said, 70% of the league's players are black.

DURU: Yeah.

MARTIN: So is the - is this rule doing what it set out to do?

DURU: Well, it's interesting. The rule itself is working in that clubs are applying it, properly. For some years, it wasn't clear that that was happening. Clubs would engage in interviews with candidates that perhaps weren't meaningful interviews or thoughtful interviews or interviews that were equivalent to the interviews that white candidates would get.

But this past hiring cycle, the one that we are disappointed about right now, all the clubs interviewed a candidate of color. Four of the five clubs interviewed two candidates of color. And the rule recommends but doesn't require that two be interviewed. But - so clubs are doing the interviews, but the outcome, as you've pointed out, is quite dispiriting.

MARTIN: Is there something about this class of candidates that is not appealing to teams? I mean, I think what strikes a number of people looking at this is, No. 1, that the numbers are so low. It's really back to the beginning. And, also, you know, the other pain point in the league has always been the quarterback position.

DURU: Sure.

MARTIN: And now you have this whole class of black quarterbacks who are ascendant and are doing extremely well. I mean, by one accounting, say, five of the top 10 quarterbacks this season were all black. So you look at that disparity, and you think - what's happening here? What is your sense of what's happening here?

DURU: Well, I think the pool of candidates is actually quite attractive by any objective measure and, also, very diverse in terms of football background. We have former offensive coordinators, former defensive coordinators. We have former head coaches. We have current offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators seeking promotion. We have coaches who are on the young side. We've got older, experienced coaches. I mean, the options are there. Candidates of color are there. The options just aren't being seized upon. And that's what's troubling.

MARTIN: But do you have any sense of why? In the previous data that had been assembled by the people who are behind the Fritz Pollard Alliance showed that black head coaches had records who were equal to and, in many cases, superior to that of some of the white candidates who had gotten jobs. I mean, this was a data that was presented in preparation for putting the Rooney Rule into effect.

DURU: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, again, the question becomes - what's the issue here? Does anybody have any theory about this?

DURU: The theory as of late was that the game is becoming a more offensive game. As a consequence of that, we're looking for offensive head coaches. And as you pointed out, over the course of years, for a number of reasons, including systemic racism, you've not been able to get very many black quarterbacks in the league. As a consequence, you've not had very many black quarterback and coaches in the league or offensive coordinators. And so the theory has been, well, we need to get a pipeline of offensive head coaching candidates.

Well, we've got that now. I mean, there - Eric Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs has marked every box. He's working for a head coach who has sent other offensive coordinators - white offensive coordinators - into head coaching positions. That head coach is Andy Reid. Andy Reid has vouched for Bieniemy, has recommended Bieniemy as strongly as any of us would ever want our bosses to recommend us. And he's not gotten the opportunity. So the answer that, hey, we're looking for offensive coaches and there aren't enough African Americans on that side of the ball doesn't really fly during his hiring cycle.

MARTIN: Some of the candidates who had been interviewed and passed over said that - it's been reported that when they asked why they didn't get the position, they were saying - things that were said to them that you could imagine being said 30 years ago. Like, I wasn't as comfortable with you in that role. So is there anything being discussed? I mean, one analyst for ESPN suggested the owner should be required to justify their hire in the same way that, say, a lot of - you know? In a lot of companies...

DURU: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Publicly held companies, you do have to justify your hire. You have to make a sort of public record of why you chose one candidate over another.

DURU: Yeah.

MARTIN: So is anything being discussed?

DURU: You mentioned comfort. I think one thing that would help is that - the hiring cycle takes place over a frenetic, hectic two-week period after the end of the regular season. And I think that when you are time-crunched as an owner, as a decision-maker, you tend to go for comfort, what's familiar. And I think that, for the majority of NFL owners, the African American candidate is not going to be the comfortable one.

So one idea might be to put a moratorium on all head coach hiring until after the Super Bowl, giving everybody a month, six weeks to take time to be deliberate, to be intentional about who you're interviewing, about the width of the net that you're casting and perhaps be a bit more thoughtful about the way in which diversity can benefit your business, your football club.

MARTIN: That is N. Jeremi Duru. He's a professor of law at American University, and he advises the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation. He joined us here in Washington, D.C. Professor Duru, thanks so much for talking to us.

DURU: Thank you so much Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.