When I was working on a book project with Dallas Cowboy Michael Bennett, he made the following observation about the NFL. He said to me, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that the NFL is integrated. It’s actually segregated. It’s segregated between those who play and get hurt, and those who get to coach and own.” Bennett was referring to the fact that 70 percent of players are black but 0 percent of franchise owners are black. He was also referring to the paucity of black coaches and general managers throughout the league.
That issue has burst into the spotlight as a new round of head coaching hires are being announced and, yet again, whiteness appears to be a necessary precondition to finding work. At present, there are only three African American coaches in the sport, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Anthony Lynn of the San Diego Chargers, and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins. (There is one Latino coach, Ron Rivera in Washington.)
The number “three” is particularly painful to take in because that was the number of black head coaches in the NFL when the league adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, named after the Steelers ownership family. The Rooney Rule stipulated that teams had to interview “minority coaches” when undergoing a search. The problem is that the rule is toothless; franchise owners don’t take it seriously, and 17 years later the numbers haven’t budged.
Some say this will change only when there are more black people in the front office, but if the coaching situation is dire, the general manager’s seat is even more bereft of anything resembling racial equity, as there is but one black GM, Chris Grier of the Dolphins. It is so blatant, so obvious, and so insulting that qualified candidates are being passed over that some assistant coaches are looking to the NCAA—which also has a terrible history of minority hiring—as a more palatable option.
The racial disparity is now being discussed in great detail even on the networks that are normally loathe to criticize the profit leviathan that is the NFL. Yet the issue is too often framed in a vacuum, as if it is merely a blind spot held by the billionaires in charge. Or maybe billionaires just don’t like to be told what to do, so they are hiring either unproven or well-traveled white coaches out of some sort of spite. Or perhaps new “social justice adviser to the NFL” Jay-Z is still getting his feet wet.
This misses the big picture. It is not just a staffing issue. This goes to the core of the National Football League. The same league that has a team named after a racial slur, the same league that has colluded against Colin Kaepernick because he took a stance for racial justice, the same league whose franchise owners have poured millions into the coffers of Donald Trump is not hiring black head coaches. This will be changed only through constant agitation—by the players union, by fans, and by the press. As Bomani Jones on ESPN’s High Noon put it, “We are not going to solve this as long as we keep centering the feelings of white people. Only way to fix it is to hurt people’s feelings. What we gotta do, the media, is to start shaming these clowns. We got the power to push them except people don’t like hurting white people’s feelings.” This statement echoes the words of Bill Russell, who said decades ago, “We have got to make the white population uncomfortable and keep it uncomfortable, because that is the only way to get their attention.”
One other point Michael Bennett made was that he and his brother, former NFL player Martellus, joke that NFL stands for “Not For Long” or “N—-—For Lease.” Players are treated and viewed by ownership like disposable pieces of equipment: churn and burn. Franchise owners have no perception of these players as anything else, so seeing them as coaches becomes a nonstarter. This doesn’t even speak to the category of coach who was never a player and instead came up through the ranks just with a knowledge of football. But that also is the province of white coaches, particularly white coaches whose fathers were a part of the “NFL family.” Agitation is the only way this will ever change. Agitation and being unafraid to call this what it is: racism at the highest levels of the National Football League.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn as Mike Lynn of the San Diego Chargers. The article has been corrected, and we regret the error.