Racism in the NFL

Recently, I’ve had separate conversations with friends who have lamented the racism inherent in the NFL.  I defended the NFL with my best guess as to the actual numbers, without doing any investigation into those numbers.  The other day, in an announcement about changes to the Rooney Rule, the NFL gave the numbers.  (The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy designed to be sure that Black candidates are interviewed for major coaching positions.)

The complaint against the NFL that is coursing through some media outlets and therefore through some of the American public is that systemic racism within the NFL causes discrimination in the hiring of senior management and coaches in the NFL.  The complaint has been underpinned in part by the lawsuit Brian Flores, a Black coach, recently instituted against the NFL and some teams, claiming that he was fired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins because of his race.  Although I have some sympathy for Flores and was puzzled when the Dolphins fired him, his complaint seems to be undermined somewhat by the fact that he was hired to be a head coach in the NFL not once, but twice.  If the teams that fired him are racist, why did they hire him?

Does racism exist in the NFL?  I’m absolutely certain that it does; after all, the NFL is an American institution, and I believe that racism is almost always present in American institutions.  The fact that there is racism in the NFL doesn’t alone justify singling it out for criticism, as seems to be happening.  I think journalists have gone after the NFL on this issue because the they have a tendency to go after any large corporate institution that makes a lot of money (except, of course, the press itself).

The question should be whether racism is a serious problem in the NFL and if it is, is it so serious that it deserves more national attention than, say, racism in the television industry, or the electric utility industry, or the chewing gum industry?  I think the answer is “no.”  (Gender discrimination in the NFL is a different issue, and a much more complicated problem to solve.)

Why do I think the press has unfairly targeted the NFL?  When it comes to employment discrimination, the traditional, if wrong-headed, measure of racism is the percentage of minority persons employed as compared to the percentage of minority persons in the population in general.  That is, if Blacks are underemployed in an industry or in a particular position within the industry, the assumption is that racism is the explanation.  Based on this traditional, if wrong-headed, measure of racism in institutions, the NFL is doing just fine, thank you.

What are the numbers?  Well, Black people constitute about 12 or 13% of the population of the United States.  In 2021, 39% of all coaches in the NFL were Black.  No problem there.  About 25% of offensive and defensive coordinators (jobs immediately below the head coach) were Black.  Twenty percent of General Managers (the senior-most management position) were Black, and 15% of Assistant GMs were Black.  It seems these positions already are disproportionately filled with Black people, not white.

The only position Blacks are poorly represented is Head Coach, where currently there are only two Black Head Coaches (about 7%).  But that number was three in 2020 (10%) and five (16%) in 2019.  In fact, I suspect that some of the recent attention to this issue is driven by the current numbers in the head coaching position, but it’s clear that on average in recent years, the average number of Black head coaches has not been terribly disproportionate to the population in general.  Moreover, head coaching vacancies typically are filled with former offensive and defensive coordinators; since 25% of coordinators are Black, it would seem that the pipeline has a good supply of minority candidates.

So, what exactly is the justification for singling out the NFL for special attention in the systemic racism arena?  So far as I can tell, the only objective measure that something is wrong in the racial makeup of the management ranks of the NFL is that 70% of the players in the NFL are Black.  Some people seem to assume that if 70% of the players are Black, then 70% of the coaches and general managers should be Black, too.  That assumption is wrong, for several reasons.

First, if outcomes are the measure, why is everyone so comfortable with the notion that 70% of the players in the NFL are Black?  There are hundreds of very good white football players who are not in the NFL simply because Black players have most of the jobs.  If the NFL would bring the number of Black players more in line with the overall Black population, many white players would not be excluded, and the representation of Blacks in coaching positions would mirror the representation among players.  No, I’m not arguing for some kind of reverse affirmative action plan, but the racial disproportion among players is not, in and of itself, a valid reason for expecting that the coaching ranks also be filled disproportionately.

The response to the reverse-affirmative-action argument, of course, is that the Black players are in the NFL because they’re the best players.  Fine.  Let’s assume that’s true – the best players get the jobs.  What does the fact that the best players are disproportionately Black have to do with the question of who the best coaches are?  If Black players can be better than white players simply by virtue of being Black, why isn’t it similarly possible that white coaches could be better than Black coaches simply by virtue of being white?  I know, let’s not go there.

What about all the former players, most of whom are Black?  Doesn’t the fact that few former players are hired as coaches show that racism is at work?  No.  Playing in the NFL and coaching in the NFL are different jobs with two distinctly different skill sets.  Very few NFL players become coaches or administrators in the NFL, for many different reasons.  One reason is the complexity of the job.  A head coach in the NFL must manage 70 or 80 players and 20 or more coaches, year-round. The coach has to understand the complexities of playing every position on the field, has to master the management of practices and management of games.  Just about all NFL coaches and front office people have dedicated their adult working lives to learning those skills  – they’ve worked in the NFL for ten or fifteen or twenty years before they rise to leadership positions.  They work 80-100-hour weeks for years to succeed.

Why would we expect a player who spent his entire life learning to play one position have anything like the coaching and management skills learned by those who have been coaching and managing for years while the player was playing?  We don’t expect expert welders at Electric Boat to become the CEO.  Some measure of how specialized NFL coaching is can be gleaned from the experience of Urban Meyer, an enormously successful college football head coach, who resigned as an NFL head coach after less than one season, declaring that coaching the NFL is completely different from coaching in college.  He called it the worst professional experience of his life.  It simply is not the case that players, Black or white, can walk out of the locker room and succeed in the coaches’ room.

Beyond that, most players who play eight or ten years in the NFL have nice pensions and have banked $5 million or more and can retire comfortably.  They have little interest in becoming assistant coaches and working 100-hour weeks for years to develop the necessary experience and skills.  It’s grueling, detailed work, that requires coaches to stay in the office for many hours every day after the players have gone home to their families.  For a glimpse at the kind of regimen expected of assistant coaches, see this article (https://insider.afca.com/the-power-of-padding-how-it-helped-create-the-patriots-dynasty/) about “padding,” the mind-numbing detail work Bill Belichick requires of his assistants.  Retired players look at that life, and look at their retirement savings and their pension, and they have little difficulty seeing that being an assistant coach is a lot less attractive than spending time with their families and hunting, fishing, or playing golf.

Some people argue that the reason there aren’t more Blacks in NFL front-office and coaching positions (even though statistically there are enough already) is that there’s an “old-boy” network at work, a racist network that tends to hire whites and to discriminate against Blacks.  Well, if that’s so, why doesn’t the “old-boy” network hire more white players?  Those same people say, well, the owners want to win, so they hire the best players, and the best players tend to be Black.  Okay, but if the white owners want to win, why wouldn’t they hire the best coaches, too?   They want to win so badly that they’ll hire Black players, but they don’t want to win so badly that they’ll hire Black coaches?  Possible, I suppose, but not likely.   Head coaches get fired all the time in the NFL because their teams aren’t winning.  Rather than having a meritocracy for some jobs and not for others, it’s much more likely that the NFL is a meritocracy both on and off the field, a meritocracy that is producing racially appropriate outcomes at every level except the players.

Then the argument moves on to optics:  It’s unseemly, the argument goes, to have a league populated with Black players when the majority of coaches and general managers is white.  It smacks of slavery, overseers, etc.  Well, if optics is what we care about, the simple solution would be to provide than no NFL roster can be more than 25% Black, a ratio at least reasonably in range of the population numbers in general.  Optics problem solved.  Don’t like that?  Well, then let’s get away from rhetoric and look at reality, which is that this isn’t slavery.  The workers in the NFL do not wear shackles; they are free to come and go any time they want.  NFL workers are actually paid a fair wage for their services, and they’re paid without regard to their race (Patrick Mahomes, DeShaun Watson, and Russell Wilson, three Black players, are among the highest paid players in the league).  In fact, when some people aren’t fretting about racism in the NFL, they’re fretting that men are paid millions of dollars a year to play a game.  If playing in the NFL is slavery, why do thousands of young men, white and Black, drive themselves mercilessly to get into the league?  So, let’s forget the slavery analogy, please.

Is the NFL perfect?  No.  Does it have its challenges when it comes to racism and sexism?  Yes.  Is it worse than in most major industries?   No, and in fact it’s probably better.  Why?  Because, 70% of it’s principal employees are Black, influential, and vocal.  The NFL is likely to be better than most major industries because the Black players demand nothing less.

Our country has plenty of problems.  In terms of relative importance, the number of Blacks in leadership positions in the NFL is way down the list.

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