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NFL’s head coaching ranks starting to look like the league they lead

Marc Morial / February 16, 2024

“It’s hard to tell what, if any, trends will emerge from this hiring cycle. Maybe the emphasis on diverse candidates will continue. Maybe team owners have opened their minds to defensive-minded coaches. Perhaps the ‘leader of men’ model will continue. Nothing has been solved, per se. But there’s cautious optimism the league is in a place to grow from here.”
Jonathan Jones, CBS Sports

Two years ago this week, I met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, along with my fellow civil rights leaders, to discuss the failure of the “Rooney Rule” to diversify the ranks of the League’s head coaches.

At that time, despite nearly 20 years under a requirement that teams interview at least one candidate of color for head coaching and senior football operation positions, only one of the NFL’s 32 head coaches was Black. Brian Flores had just been fired after three seasons as Miami Dolphins’ head coach and was suing the NFL and several teams for racist hiring practices.

Thanks in large part to our advocacy, the 2024 season will begin with nine head coaches of color, including six Black coaches.

It’s a far cry from the parity we continue to seek in a League where more than half the players are Black, but it is significant progress for which Commissioner Goodell, team owners and senior leadership should be acknowledged.

The first move of the year to replace a White head coach with a coach of color came from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been outspoken about inequality and prejudice. He recently founded the group, Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, and endowed a Chair in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He downplayed the significance of Jerod Mayo becoming the Patriots’ first Black head coach, saying “I chose the best head coach for this organization.” But Mayo acknowledged the moment: “What I will say, though, is I do see color because I believe if you don’t see color, you can’t see racism … It does matter so we can try to fix the problem that we all know we have.”

On cue, anti-racial justice activist Stephen Miller, a former advisor to Donald Trump, filed an EEOC complaint against the NFL, trying to keep the League from fixing the problem we all know we have.

Miller is calling for the same thing the National Urban League called for two years ago: elimination of the Rooney Rule. However, we were seeking a better way to achieve equal opportunity for candidates of color. Miller is seeking to eliminate opportunities for candidates of color.

Since we met with Commissioner Goodell, the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule to require teams interview at least two external minority candidates for head coach and general manager jobs. As we noted at the time, the effect of the rule as it had existed was for team decision-makers to regard interviews with candidates of color as an extraneous step, rather than an integral part of the hiring process.

The coach that Mayo replaced, Bill Belichick, inadvertently proved the ineffectiveness of the Rooney Rule and triggered Flores’ lawsuit when he texted Flores to congratulate him on being named head coach of the New York Giants – three days before Flores was scheduled to interview for the job.

Belichick thought he was texting Brian Daboll. Not only had the Giants already decided to hire Daboll before even interviewing Flores – presumably to comply with the letter, if not the spirit, of the Rooney Rule – but the team already was sharing the news.

The League also created the Coach and Front Office Accelerator, which allows diverse candidates for positions across the League to network with club owners and executives and participate in personal and professional development workshops.

A federal judge ruled in July that Flores, now defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, may proceed to trial with his claims against the NFL, Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Houston Texans, but must pursue his claims against the Dolphins through arbitration.

Regardless of the outcome of Flores’ legal action, he has helped propel the League toward equity and opportunity.

Marc H. Morial is the president and Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.


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