Proposed New Rule Shows How NFL Owners Really Feel About Diversity

“We’ll stop hiring our (mostly white) friends and hire some highly qualified people of color, but we want something in return.” This is the message that NFL owners are sending with the proposed rule change designed to encourage teams to hire more people of color.

What is in the proposal?

The specifics of the proposed rule change are here. Essentially, this would allow teams to move up several spots in the third round of the draft if their general manager and/or a head coach that is a person of color. Also, if that head coach or general manager is entering their third year with the team, that team will move up a few spots in the fourth round of that offseason’s draft.

Why is this rule being proposed?

For years, the NFL has been under scrutiny for having a dearth of racial diversity on coaching staffs and in front offices despite having an overwhelming majority of non-white players. In 2003, the NFL passed the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview at least one person of color for head coaching (and later front office executive) jobs. According to FiveThirtyEight, the rule did initially lead to an increase in the percentage of games coached by non-white head coaches. However, things have stagnated in the last decade. This year, non-white head coaches are projected to coach less than 15% of games this year. There is even less diversity in NFL front offices. Currently, Andrew Berry and Chris Grier are the league’s only black general managers. The rest are white.

Related: Ramifications of the NFL tweak to the Rooney Rule

Why aren’t more minorities getting hired for these jobs?

There is no way to come up with a specific answer to this question since we cannot read the minds of NFL owners. Even if we could, there probably would not be one exact thing to point to. Instead, let’s look at a few factors that are likely to be in play:

Lack of connections

In most industries, it helps to have friends/family in high places when applying for jobs. The NFL is no different. This is why you see a lot of coaching families such as the Ryan’s, the Gruden’s, the Harbough’s, and the Shanahan’s to name a few. The relationship between the Gruden and McVay coaching families actually provides some decent insight into how important networking is to landing coaching jobs in the league. In the 1970s, Jim McVay was the head coach at Dayton University and one of the assistants on his staff was Jim Gruden. Decades later, Jim McVay’s grandson, Sean, got his first NFL job working under Jim Gruden’s son, Jon, in Tampa Bay. The younger McVay went on to become the tight ends coach in Washington until he was promoted to offensive coordinator by newly hired head coach, Jay Gruden. McVay then parlayed that job into a head coaching gig with the Rams.

Family ties are not the only way to get jobs in the NFL, having powerful friends helps too. In 2011, late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen named his friend and former Super Bowl MVP quarterback John Elway as the new general manager. That was despite Elway having zero experience working in an NFL front office. A few years later, Elway hired his old backup quarterback, Gary Kubiak, as head coach. Connections have also helped minority coaches land jobs at times. Byron Leftwich built a strong rapport with Bruce Arians in Pittsburgh when the former was a backup quarterback and the latter was the offensive coordinator. This relationship led to Arians hiring Leftwich to his staff when he became the Cardinals head coach. Now, the pair is once again working together in Tampa Bay. However, in a league with only two non-white owners, and the same number of general managers, it is easy to see how relying on being well-connected could lead to minority candidates for coaching and front-office positions at a disadvantage.

Playing catch-up

One of the biggest causes of minorities not being as well-connected as their white counterparts is that they were not always widely accepted throughout the league. By being late to the party, their connections do not run as deep. The NFL was founded in 1920, 44 years before the Civil Rights movement happened. At that time, the league had just two black players. There had been 13 to play in the league by 1933, but in 1934, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall encouraged his fellow owners to not sign black athletes. There would not be another black player in the NFL until 1946. An African-American signal-caller did not start an NFL game until 1968. This is noteworthy because quarterback is considered the easiest position to transition from player to coach due to the position’s inherent cerebral and leadership responsibilities. Currently, six of the league’s head coaches were once quarterbacks on NFL rosters/practice squads.

Speaking of head coaches, until Art Shell in 1989, the league had only ever had one African-American head coach. On the other hand, there were other minority coaches before that such as Tom Flores. Non-white head coaches did not start coaching more than 10% of games in a season until the 90s. It gets even worse when you get to the front office. The NFL did not get its first black general manager until Ozzie Newsome in 2002. To this date, there has never been more than six non-white GMs in the league at any one time, and there are currently only two. The league did not get its first minority owner until Shahid Khan bought the Jaguars in 2012. He and the Bills’ Kim Pegula are currently the league’s lone two majority owners.

When you consider how long it has taken for minorities in the NFL to become even somewhat normalized, it’s easy to see why you do not see many in positions of power.

Racism. Plain and simple.

The hard truth is that the reason why it has been such a long slog for minorities to gain positions of power in the league is rooted in racism. If you take five minutes to Google the aforementioned Marshall, you will learn three things:

A. He was a proud racist.

B. He had a lot of influence among NFL owners in the early years of the league.

C. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now, Marshall is certainly an extreme example and I am by no means saying that he represents NFL owners as a whole. Al Davis, for example, was a pioneer for diversity in the NFL. It is worth noting that Marshall was revered during his time as an NFL owner while Davis was treated as a pariah for most of his life.

Another issue coaches have had to overcome is stereotypes. Black coaches like Mike Tomlin get labeled as motivators rather than acclaimed for their football IQ. These unfair racist tropes make it more difficult for minorities to move up the coaching ranks.

Would this rule help create more diversity?

The short answer is probably, but it will be somewhat artificial. NFL owners won’t be hiring more minorities because of their hard work. They will be doing it because it improves their draft position. So whether or not this rule is effective depends on what the goal is. Is the goal is simply to have more people of color in general manager and head coaching positions? If so, this rule will then likely get the job done. But, if the goal is to create a more merit-based system for hiring coaches and executives, this will not do.

Bottom Line

With this proposed rule change, the NFL is admitting that it has a diversity problem. However, by requiring that teams get rewarded for doing something about it, the league is also admitting that it only cares so much. The league is trying another quick fix to a deeply rooted problem caused by years of systemic racism. It might work from a perception standpoint, but that’s about it. The only real solutions are time, and maverick owners like Al Davis, who want successful people leading their team regardless of their race.

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Top Photo: Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

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