The day after the end of the NFL season, when teams fire allegedly underperforming head coaches, is known as Black Monday. This year that nickname was a tad too “on the nose.” Of the seven NFL head coaches fired earlier this week, five are African American. That leaves the league with only two black head coaches, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Los Angeles Charges coach Mike Lynn. In a league that is 70 percent African American, the number of black head coaches has never even hit 30 percent.
There are also of course still no black owners, and “the Rooney rule” that owners interview candidates of color is completely toothless. A sport where player careers last only three and a half years is built on disposable black bodies, indifference to brain damage, and a country-club dismissal of black brain power. It is this reality that compelled Michael Bennett of the Philadelphia Eagles to write in his 2018 book (which I co-wrote):
If the NFL were really integrated these [ownership, coaching and executive numbers] would be different. The NFL needed what’s called the Rooney Rule just to require owners to sit down with Black coaching candidates. They needed a rule just to talk to us. Not hire us. Talk to us…. We are integrated only on the level that people see on the field, yet all sports celebrate this half-view of integration. When Major League Baseball memorializes Jackie Robinson, they leave out that he wanted to be a manager or executive but they would not give him the opportunity.
But why should anyone be surprised that we’ve arrived at this point in 2019. This is a league whose owners gave upward of $8 million to the shady Trump Inauguration Committee. This is a league that is still signing quarterbacks who were terrible in college, let alone the NFL, while denying Colin Kaepernick employment because he dared to speak out for racial justice and against police violence. This is the league that has almost certainly been harassing Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid with repeated drug tests, for the crime of continuing to demand justice on behalf of his friend Kaepernick.
NFL franchise owners even wanted to fine or even suspend players for protesting racial inequity, until the union intervened. Such a league is not going to hire black coaches unless it is compelled to do so.
I reached out to attorney N. Jeremi Duru, author of the book, Advancing the Ball Race, Reformation and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. He said, “This is the lowest number of black coaches in the league since 2002 when Herm Edwards stood alone after Tony Dungy and Dennis Green were fired…. The Rooney Rule has been good for the league, and over the years we’ve seen clubs consider and hire candidates they might not have otherwise, but we’ve also seen clubs pay the rule lip service and go through the motions with no intention of ever considering the candidate of color…. There must be more. We need other good ideas about how to create opportunity for head-coach aspirants of color.
“One key obstacle is that quarterbacks, quarterback coaches, offensive-line coaches, and offensive coordinators are disproportionately and overwhelmingly white—and we all know that racial preconceptions have historically played a role there. People in those positions are the people who tend to funnel into head-coaching positions. We have to promote initiatives that get more people of color involved on the offensive side of the ball as coaches. Once that happens, and the pipeline builds, I think we’ll start to see the number of coaches of color rise and stabilize.”
The initiatives that Duru speaks of must include acknowledgement that the low number of black coaches is not happenstance. It’s due to the racism that runs deep in the owners’ boxes of the National Football League. Yet this is about more than racism. It’s about respect for labor. It’s about justice. And it’s about the NFL finally joining the 21st century.