Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Roya Sabri headshot

Lack of Diversity Amongst NFL Head Coaches Draws Attention During Super Bowl LIV

By Roya Sabri
Super Bowl

Behind the raucous celebration of Super Bowl Sunday in host city Miami (as shown in the photo above) and beyond, the National Football League has some spider webs looming in the corners.

Just two weeks before the big game, the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA) — which advocates for diversity in NFL positions other than “player” — organized a town hall for coaches and scouts in Mobile, Alabama, to discuss the iniquities in their sport.

Only three of 32 current head coaches are Black — this in a sport where 70 percent of the players are Black. The past three years saw 19 head-coaching positions open up, but only two Black coaches were chosen as replacements.

At the town hall, the FPA emphasized that lacking inclusion in hiring could eventually hurt team bottom lines, Yahoo reported.

Moving beyond the Rooney Rule after the Super Bowl

When it comes to diversity in coaching, the Rooney Rule is top of mind. In 2003, the Rooney Rule was set up to help equalize the playing field, but it hasn’t exactly been as effective as hoped. The rule requires owners to interview at least one ethnic minority out-of-house candidate for head coaching and upper-management jobs. During its 17 years in force, though, there has never been more than eight minority head coaches at any one time.

Some argue that the Rooney Rule doesn’t go far enough to bring equity to the hiring process. Jason Reid of The Undefeated identified two flaws in the rule that hold back hiring — interviews don’t have to be serious, and coordinator-level positions, which often lead to head coaching, aren’t included in the rule.

That’s not to say the Rooney Rule hasn’t had a positive impact. There is a marked difference in diversity before and after the rule was established. Reid notes that in the 12 seasons before the rule, the NFL only had six non-white head coaches. In the 12 seasons since then, 14 have been coaches of color.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, however, is not satisfied with that inching progress.

“Clearly we are not where we want to be on this level,” Goodell said last week during the annual State of the League Address. “We have a lot of work that’s gone into not only the Rooney Rule but our policies overall. It’s clear we need to change and do something different. There’s no reason to expect we’re going to have a different outcome next year without those kinds of changes.”

Goodell said the league has meetings scheduled over February to figure out how to achieve more equitable outcomes.

Can equitable hiring improve business?

Those at the Alabama town hall agreed that team owners are the key to increasing the diversity of head coaches.

“What’s really clear, at this point, is that it’s not the league office,” Cyrus Mehri, co-founder of the FPA, said at the event. “The league office has been fighting with us. It’s the owners. We have … spectacular candidates, and we still have decision-making [amongst owners] that’s irrational. I don’t want to pick on anybody. I really don’t. But it’s hard to justify [former Cleveland Browns head coach] Freddie Kitchens being hired and overlooking [Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator] Eric Bieniemy.”

Diverse leadership is not only logical; it’s profitable. Consulting Firm McKinsey’s 2018 research found that the most ethnically/culturally diverse executive teams were 33 percent more likely than peer companies to have industry-leading profitability. Businesses that choose not to hire a diverse cohort are 29 percent less likely to achieve even above-average profitability.

The NFL seems to understand the business implications of improving diversity, at least in customer orientation.

The website’s “Commitment to Diversity” reads in part: “Diversity is the right thing to do both for moral and ethical reasons as well as for the long-term business success of the League. To speak effectively to the broad society externally, the NFL must represent and celebrate a broad society internally. We must overcome the existing cynicism by making progress in both the culture and composition of the NFL organization.

The decisions and changes Goodell has promised for next month are reason enough to keep watching the NFL even after Super Bowl Sunday.

Image credit: Lynne Filderman

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

Read more stories by Roya Sabri