What has long been an embarrassment for the National Football League now constitutes a crisis. After the firing of Houston Texans head coach David Culley, following just one overachieving 4-13 season (the Texans had no business winning anything), the NFL is down to one Black head coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. All Tomlin has done to keep his job is not have a losing season for 15 years. In addition to Culley’s getting canned, Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores was summarily fired after a near-miraculous season where he led to Dolphins to a 9-8 record after a 1-7, injury-plagued start. It was Flores’s second winning season in a row for a franchise that before him barely registered a pulse.
The firings of Culley and Flores have served as a reminder that not only do Black head coaching candidates rarely get jobs. When they do, they tend to be tasked with rebuilding disastrous organizations, only to be fired when the ship gets turned in an at least somewhat favorable direction. The Dolphins were, as mentioned, a dumpster in search of a fire. The Texans had been hollowed out by scandal and a series of trades so terrible they’d shame a fantasy football novice. In the face of this, by any measure, Flores and Culley overperformed.
Now, we have a league—the most popular sports league in the United States—that is 70 percent Black, with one Black head coach. Now, we have a league that puts anti-racism slogans in the end zone and on players’ helmets, but won’t hire Black people. Now, we have a league whose public relations could conceivably crack under the contradiction of relying so desperately on Black talent and the injuring of Black bodies, while standing in open contempt of Black minds. It is a league with no Black franchise owners and one Black head coach, and this display of apartheid athletics is propelling some insiders to speak out. Longtime nfl.com reporter Michael Silver—someone who has been a frontline NFL journalist for decades, writing 70 cover stories for Sports Illustrated—tweeted last week, “There is systemic racism in the NFL, and there are actual racists in some positions of power. I’m done dancing around the latter.”
What makes this moment so damning is that two decades ago, when the NFL started what it calls the Rooney Rule, where every NFL team has to interview at least one coaching candidate of color or be hit with a fine, there was one Black coach. After a generation of having to forcibly compel the NFL ownership class to actually sit down and interview coaches of color, we are back to where we started.
I reached out to law professor N. Jeremi Duru, who cowrote the book Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. He said, “This situation is deeply troubling. In 2002, UPenn labor economist Janice Madden conducted a statistical study of NFL head coach hiring and firings. Her findings showed that Black coaches are the last hired and first fired. Specifically, she wrote, ‘These data are consistent with Blacks having to be better coaches than whites in order to get a job as a head coach in the NFL.… The Black coach candidates in the pipeline seem to be held to a higher standard in the NFL Football League.’ Her statement is just as true today, 20 years later. It is ridiculous, and it is infuriating.”
The question that needs to be answered is how to change this. If, as Silver wrote, there is “systemic racism in the NFL, and there are actual racists in some positions of power,” then the Rooney Rule, as if any more evidence were needed, simply will not cut it. For two decades, the NFL central office has had to compel its almost all white franchise owners to just sit down with candidates of color—an embarrassment in and of itself—and it has produced few results. The ritualized annual condemnations of this state of affairs put forward by NFL-allied organizations meant to advance the cause of Black coaches also aren’t cutting it.
We need change. I am not saying to chuck the Rooney Rule. I’m saying that we need to give it teeth. When teams violate the Rooney Rule, forget the fines. Take away first-round draft picks. Also, mandate spots for candidates of color among coordinator and assistant positions. Before anyone gripes about these being “quotas” or “set-asides,” keep in mind that there already are set-asides all over the NFL for the progeny of head coaches who turn up employed on sidelines armed only with some peach fuzz, a headset, and an ego, handed a job like it’s a family heirloom. Lastly, we need to stop asking Mike Tomlin, Tony Dungy, and overlooked Black assistant coaches for their thoughts on the situation. Talk to white head coaches. Talk to management. Put them on the spot to actually have to endorse or condemn this state of affairs. They have gotten a pass for way too long.
These are just a couple of suggestions. There are some very real racists with very real power who sit in owners’ boxes and pull the levers of this league. They are why Colin Kaepernick was effectively banned from the game, and they are why too many sidelines and front offices are restricted. Until they are uprooted—or until the league has a commissioner with the courage to challenge them—change won’t be coming to this calcified, lumbering reactionary brontosaurus of a sport. But it needs to come soon, or we will find out just how brittle the National Football League actually is. How the NFL addresses—or doesn’t address—athletic apartheid will define the league in the years to come.