INDIANAPOLIS — Art Shell’s hair is now like the team he played for — silver and black. Those were the only colors that late Raiders owner Al Davis cared about 24 years ago when he made the Raiders Hall of Fame left tackle the first African-American coach in the modern-era NFL.
The color that minority coaches, scouts, and front office personnel are seeing these days is red after an offseason in which eight head coaching vacancies and seven general manager jobs were filled without a single minority hire.
At a time when the game on the field is as wide-open, innovative, and creative as it’s ever been, the NFL’s hiring practices have reverted to the equivalent of the single wing. And it’s not just owners who are culpable. It’s head coaches who pigeonhole minority candidates as position coaches, player ambassadors, and locker room liaisons instead of play-callers or game-planners.
“I thought it was moving along very well, until this year,” said the 66-year-old Shell. “This year kind of pulled the scab off and said, ‘This is not working anymore. It’s not producing the results that we’re looking for.’ I don’t think anybody can say it did produce the results because it didn’t.”
History has shown that it’s a lot easier to legislate and enforce exclusionary policies than it is to legislate and enforce access and equality. At the end of the day, NFL owners are running a billion-dollar private business and they have a right to hire whomever they want.
But in a league in which 67 percent of the players are minorities, according to the most recent study from the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, it’s not a venial circumstance that 87.5 percent of the head coaches are white.
There are four minority head coaches in the NFL: Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Leslie Frazier of the Minnesota Vikings, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers.
There are five minority general managers among the 32 teams: Rick Smith (Houston), Martin Mayhew (Detroit), Jerry Reese (Giants), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland), and Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore).
The NFL is usually a copycat league. Ideas and approaches are ripped off like MP3s.
Well, the last two Super Bowl-winning GMs, Newsome and Reese, are minorities. The offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Ravens, Jim Caldwell, and the defensive coordinator of the previous champions, Perry Fewell of the Giants, are both minority coaches with head coaching experience on their résumés.
A minority coach or GM has been on the masthead of a Super Bowl team each of the last seven seasons.
Yet, the league tossed a diversity shutout this offseason, the 10th anniversary of the Rooney Rule, the edict named for Steelers chairman Dan Rooney that mandates minorities be interviewed for head coaching and senior football operations vacancies.
Hiring a minority for the sake of hiring a minority is just as bad as excluding one from the process as a serious candidate altogether. It’s about quality, not quotas.
If the NFL’s most recent offseason is to be believed, there simply aren’t any quality minority head coaching and general manager candidates out there that merited employment. That notion is as far-fetched as Tim Tebow leading the league in completion percentage.
Though well-intentioned, the Rooney Rule has become the Rooney Ruse, the interviewing of minority candidates devolving into a rote ritual of compliance rather than open-minded opportunity.
“When you sit down to have an interview with a guy and you know you have a vacancy for your ball club, that interview should be at least with a person you know you could hire,” said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group for minority coaches, scouts, and front office personnel that was formed 10 years ago and named after the 1920s player/coach who was the NFL’s first African-American head coach.
“If that’s not your commitment, then you’re not being honest and open. You’re complying with the rule, but what about the spirit of the rule?”
Wooten, a former NFL player and player personnel executive, said that he and members of the Fritz Pollard Alliance met with NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president of human resources Robert Gulliver, and NFL senior vice president of football operations Ray Anderson on Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine on ways to improve minority hiring.
In a letter last month, the Alliance requested an expansion of the Rooney Rule to include coordinators and assistant coaching positions. Wooten also advocates for a program that is the football equivalent of an executive training program, with each organization taking two young employees on their personnel and coaching staffs and putting them on a head coach or GM track.
That’s a good idea, but grassroots change on the coaching side needs to come from head coaches.
In the NFL, 33 percent of the assistant coaches are minorities, but there is a paucity of coaches put in positions of offensive or defensive authority. Before the Indianapolis Colts hired Pep Hamilton as their offensive coordinator, Caldwell was the only minority offensive play-caller in the league. He got the job in December, after Cam Cameron was canned.
“There has to be a concentrated effort by head coaches in my mind that if you have minorities on your staff, put them in a position where they can ascend to become coordinators,” said Shell. “Obviously, what’s happening is a lot of owners are looking for coordinators as head coach prospects.”
Someone like Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, who has been apprenticing under Bill Belichick since 2000, deserves a shot at a coordinator job in the league.
The spotlight that the 0-for-15 offseason has shown on the desiccation of diversity in the NFL can be a positive.
It’s a reminder that the march of progress can slip into inertia if it’s taken for granted.