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Leon Kaye headshot

As with the Rest of the Private Sector, the NFL Overlooks Black Talent in Management

America's corporations and the NFL share one thing in common: they keep overlooking the talent that's evident within people of color.
By Leon Kaye

The NFL would prefer that we would only tune into Wild Card Weekend, but it’s difficult to tune out the fact that as of press time, only one of the 32 head coaches across the NFL is Black. That head coach is Mike Tomlin, who has never had a losing season as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The dearth of Black head coaches continues even though about 70 percent of the NFL’s players are Black. Nevertheless, during the 100-year history of the NFL, less than three dozen head coaches in total have been Black.

“In 2003, NFL franchise owners had to be prodded to seriously consider Black candidates to coach their teams,” said columnist Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They were willing to sign Black players make them money while risking their health. They were reluctant to let them lead their teams after they were done playing. Once those Black coaches got more opportunities, they proved they should have had them all along."

Cunningham is referring to the “Rooney Rule,” which beginning in 2003, required NFL franchises to interview people of color for head coach openings. Since then, the league has gone backwards on the diversity front. In 2018 alone, five Black NFL head coaches were fired; each of them was replaced with a White coach.

Could it be the attitude that NFL’s White owners have toward their Black employees?

“It is clear those NFL franchise owners are in favor of Black men doing one thing: battering their brains and bodies as players, for their own entertainment and their own bank accounts,” Yahoo Sports’ Shalise Manza Young concluded in her column last week. “Until, that is, players retire and want what's due to them.”

Going back to Tomlin: He has appeared to set the bar high for NFL head coaches. While talented Black assistant coaches are making their mark across the NFL, they have been consistently been overlooked as the NFL has turned to young, relatively inexperienced and White coaches, especially after the Los Angeles Rams found success after hiring Sean McVay. In addition, there has been no shortage of White coaches who have scored second chances: fans will point to examples such as Pat Shurmur (Browns and Giants), Adam Gase (Dolphins and Jets) and Doug Marrone (Bills and Jaguars).

“Teams are ultimately going to hire the coach they want to hire, but the striking imbalance between white and minority coaches suggests that it’s not the Rooney Rule that’s the problem, but team leadership,” the Guardian’s Gabriel Baumgaertner wrote at the end of the 2020 NFL season. “With so much turnover – remember that over 60 percent of teams have made at least one coaching change in the past three years – it’s confusing that veteran black coaches like [Jim] Caldwell and [Leslie] Frazier aren’t given another opportunity.”

As for the real world, or shall we say the private sector, it’s not much better for people of color. Black executives make up only 8 percent of the leadership ranks within the 50 most valuable U.S. companies, according to a recent Washington Post survey. And despite the large body of research that suggests diversity within corporate leadership is linked to improved performance, it’s an even larger struggle for women of color.

To their credit, more investors are pressuring companies to change their ways; State Street Global Advisors, for example, announced last week it’s telling companies to include at least one woman and a person of color on their board if they expect the investment management giant to support them during the upcoming proxy season.

In a widely quoted 1956 address, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “we must rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns, with a broader concern for all humanity.” More than 65 years later, that bit of advice certain applies to how we approach hiring our colleagues. It’s easy to simply hire the person with whom we feel more comfortable.

The problem is that too many of us often hire people who often look and think like us. To sum up a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “exclusion is visible in many organizational processes.” The hard part is hiring someone who’s certainly qualified and brings a lot to the table but comes from a different background and has life story than the hiring manager. But with the way many of our professional networks are structured, far too many people will be excluded from opportunities – in both the NFL and across the private sector.

Image credit: Stephane Coudassot-Berducou via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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