REAL CHANGE MEANS HIRING NON-WHITES TO TOP NFL POSTS
Teams only stand to benefit by expanding talent pool when seeking coaches and GMS
The National Football League altered its hiring policies last month in a bid to increase the number of non-white coaches and executives in its ranks.
The changes to the Rooney Rule, which was first established 17 years ago, happened in the middle of the first major event this year that tilted the world off its axis. And now with the second major global event, the NFL already seems out of step with the moment.
With protests against racism in policing across North America and Europe having become a greater call for an end to discrimination, and with governments and corporations insisting that they must do more to address workforce imbalances, the NFL is still left with six non-white head coaches and general managers among 64 such positions.
The revised Rooney Rule will require teams to interview more minority candidates for those jobs, as well as for senior co-ordinator positions. A proposal to reward teams that hire minority candidates with improved thirdround draft picks was tabled. While there are now loud calls for sweeping change, this was a tweak.
What happened in the NFL last month — before the swell of public support for anti-racism initiatives, before commissioner Roger Goodell’s surprising apology for the way the league has handled player protests against police brutality — is instructive, because it shows that as much as institutions might acknowledge their biases and a desire to overcome them, actually doing so won’t come easily.
While there’s no lack of industries with a paucity of non-white employees in senior positions — government, medicine, law, and certainly the media — there is no place where the disparity is quite so glaring as in the NFL. The labour pool is about 70 per cent black, and almost two decades after the league admitted that it had a problem ensuring that those former players had the same opportunities in coaching and management as white former players (and non-players), it was left admitting that the problem has persisted. Its teams are so bad at hiring non-whites to their top jobs that they considered literally bribing themselves to do it.
The bizarre thing about all this is that teams in a hyper-competitive league would only stand to improve by expanding their hiring pool, and yet they still don’t do it.
One of the underpinnings of the statistical revolutions across all sports in recent years has been the recognition that one key to success is to find something valuable that other teams are undervaluing and exploit it. In baseball it was on-base percentage, in basketball it was the three-point shot, in hockey it was puck possession.
The idea of hiring statisticians into management roles went from wildly controversial to routine in the space of a few seasons. Now any franchise that doesn’t have a dedicated statistical analysis department — dreaded computer nerds — is the outlier.
Hiring more coaches and executives from the non-traditional pool offers the same potential competitive advantage to an NFL team. It’s not unlike the manner in which the league has considered the black quarterback. For ages they were a novelty, and even though a few had broken through and proven themselves, teams were still far more likely to draft a big white kid who could stand in the pocket and chuck the ball a mile than they were a black quarterback, even one with a gaudy college resume. But now any list of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL has most of the nonwhite starters bunched at the top: Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott. Drew Brees could be slotted in there somewhere as the white QB torch bearer among the present elite, but that’s about it.
This isn’t to say the league has totally adjusted its way of thinking about black quarterbacks; Jackson was infamously passed over by every team in the 2018 draft before Baltimore took him at the end of the first round. He was the league MVP in 2019. But there have to be personnel departments looking at the success of the league’s black quarterbacks and realizing their evaluation processes are flawed. The Chicago Bears, having passed on both Mahomes and Watson in 2017 to take Mitch Trubisky, might have destroyed the myth of the white QB with potential all by themselves.
Like the crop of thriving non-white quarterbacks, why wouldn’t there be untapped talent in the potential coaching ranks, once a team looks a little wider to find the right candidate? Real change will come when teams realize that it will be to their benefit to overcome their traditional biases, not because a league rule forces them to conduct a couple extra interviews.
That is, obviously, true for other industries that have a deficit of minorities in leadership positions. But sports teams and leagues have a unique opportunity to lead by example, because their top jobs are so visible.
Goodell’s unexpected statement on Friday, which condemned “racism and the systemic oppression of black people” was notable because it was more blunt and conciliatory than anything the NFL had previously said on the issue. We’ll only know how serious its teams are about change if, a decade from now, they aren’t arguing about changing the Rooney Rule again.
Any list of the most productive QBS in the NFL has most of the league’s non-white starters bunched at the top, including Patrick Mahomes of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.