The NFL Has Been Approaching Its Diversity Problem The Wrong Way

If the league wants more black head coaches, it needs to worry about the assistant coaches, too.
The firing of Tony Dungy, pictured above, along with that of Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green in 2002 led to the est
The firing of Tony Dungy, pictured above, along with that of Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green in 2002 led to the establishment of the Rooney Rule.

It’s been about a dozen years since the questionable firing of two black head coaches led the NFL to institute a rule aimed to address the lack of diversity on its sidelines. Beginning in 2003, the “Rooney Rule” mandated that each franchise interview at least one minority candidate whenever it’s hiring a new head coach.

All these years later, the situation has changed for the better, if only slightly. There are currently five black head coaches on the league’s sidelines, as Todd Bowles, Jim Caldwell, Hue Jackson, Marvin Lewis and Mike Tomlin have all risen through the ranks to become their teams’ respective lead men.

But new research indicates that if we want to affect significant change and make strides toward a more diverse league, we have to stop focusing on the highest levels of the coaching hierarchy -- head coaches -- and start paying closer attention to the way we place and promote coaches in the earliest stages of their NFL tenures. That requires focusing on the coaches at the bottom of a team's hierarchy to ensure that a higher number of black coaches are on the right track from day one to eventually earn that elusive title of head coach.

The study, completed by professors from Georgetown, George Washington, Emory and Iowa State, suggests that if we don’t start focusing on the bottom of the coaching ladder -- if we continue to pay attention to bias only when choosing head coaches -- black coaches hoping to climb it will remain disadvantaged in two ways.

Understanding NFL coaching structure is important

Before we get into those two ways, let's back up and explain the typical NFL team's coaching structure.

Each team has a head coach, an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator. They are the big three, but below them you have a number of other smaller coaches, which are called position coaches. These people focus on more specific groups like quarterbacks, running backs, offensive lines, special teams and more.

As you can see in the graphic above, there are a lot of position coaches on a typical team, but the critical thing to remember is this: Not all position coaches are created equal. Some are more likely than others to one day become coordinators, and, in turn, head coaches. For example, a running back coach is much less likely than a quarterback coach to, one day, become head coach.

There are two main issues holding back black coaches

Understanding all that, here is the first issue: Black coaches at the beginning of their careers are getting put in the wrong jobs. They are getting the gigs that the researchers say have “inferior promotion prospects” as compared to white coaches at the same professional stage. 

Let's take the fast-rising quarterback coach and the water-treading running back coach. According to this research, between a white coach and a black coach, who is more likely to land a gig as a quarterback coach? The white coach. And who is more likely to start their career as a running back coach? The black coach. 

These are just two examples, but the pattern holds across the entirety of position coaches. Or as the authors say it: "At the time of hire into their first NFL coaching position, white coaches tend to be allocated to positions with greater upward mobility prospects than black coaches."

Now, the second issue: Once already hired, black coaches are less likely than white coaches to be rewarded and promoted for their efforts, once again giving them a more difficult route to the top of the coaching food chain. 

As it stands right now, Georgetown’s Chris Rider and his co-authors estimate that white NFL position coaches are more than two times as likely to be promoted to coordinator than their black counterparts.

Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard was the first black head coach in the NFL. Pollard also made history in 1920 by becoming o
Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard was the first black head coach in the NFL. Pollard also made history in 1920 by becoming one of the first two black players to compete in the league. He's pictured above being welcomed into the National Football Hall of Fame at a game in Providence, Rhode Island, on Nov. 6, 1954.

The methodology appears to check out

The paper has yet to be peer reviewed -- a point that University of Michigan sports management professor Rodney Fort was careful to emphasize. But the lack of peer review gave less pause to the other two experts to whom The Huffington Post spoke: University of Michigan professor of sports management Stefan Szymanski and Southern Utah University professor of economics David Berri.

While Szymanski believes that the study's data set is extensive enough to hold up through the review process, Berri said the very fact that the researchers saw such consistent results even while running their model in a variety of ways suggests that their work is "thorough" and "legitimate." Both Szymanski and Berri were alluding to the study's methodology: It aggregated and analyzed information about over 1,200 NFL coaches between the years of 1985 and 2012, pulling its data from the NFL's annual directories and controlling for a multitude of different factors to ensure the most accurate outcomes. 

The problem extends beyond the NFL, football and sports

According to Berri, this new research makes perfect sense considering what we already know about how discrimination plays a role in the decision-making processes of society at large. The hiring process in corporate America, he said, is inherently discriminatory since the “decision makers” tend to (1) be “predominantly male and predominately white,” and (2) select “their friends and those friends tend to be people that are like them."

And that, Berri said, is what we’re seeing here: These results come down to the sad fact that “the fundamental nature of the decision making process is racist.”

Why the Rooney Rule doesn't solve the problem

Add it all up, and the crucial finding is this: These lower rung battles matter. Because while once coaches are at either coordinator position, racial makeup doesn’t seem to factor into getting that final promotion, the “problem” for minority coaches, Rider told HuffPost, “is getting to the coordinator positions,” as black coaches are promoted to those second-in-command slots only half as often.

That, then, is why it’s so important to move past the Rooney Rule, and spend serious time rethinking how the league sorts and rewards coaches at its lowest levels -- so that groups are equally set up for success before they’re really even in the running for the ultimate prize of being named head coach.


Jim Caldwell was named head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, about a half decade after the Rooney Rule was insti
Jim Caldwell was named head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, about a half decade after the Rooney Rule was instituted. Now running the Detroit Lions -- and one of only five black head coaches currently in the league -- Caldwell has spoken out about the racial disparity in NFL coaching circles in the past.

Today, even with this new research, we still don’t have the concrete solutions needed to “fix” the NFL. We still don’t know exactly how to counteract the discrimination so evident in its hiring processes. But now, at least, there is finally evidence that suggests that the Rooney Rule just isn’t enough -- that we need to do more if we want the NFL to be truly inclusive.

The NFL did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. 


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