The NFL unpacked predictable trumpets to blare about its boffo draft ratings, and to be fair, the hearty pat on the back was earned by pulling off the unprecedented virtual event that turned out impressive in its logistical aptitude and engaging for its dramatic appeal.
But for all the steps forward the NFL takes, it can never seem to stop reminding us how backward it can be.
Call it the law of unintended consequences, but draft night also laid bare one of the league’s worst-kept secrets, with stunning visual evidence of the backsliding in diversity hiring over the last few years apparent on every screen. As camera after camera showed the decision-makers and power brokers across the league, the overall whiteness was blinding.
If you didn’t see it, you just weren’t looking.
The issue finally entered our mainstream conversation this week after one of the league’s ideas to address it was reported by the NFL Network, a proposal to use draft capital as a reward for teams that hire or retain minority coaches leading to breathless hours of dissection. The idea was but one of a handful of changes included in the discussion among owners prior to their conference call Tuesday to vote on any alterations, but as the most radical one, it drew the most attention.
It ultimately was tabled, and it falls to the misguided thinkers behind it to fix it, to recognize that even if their intention of getting teams to follow the spirit of the Rooney Rule is admirable, the execution in this proposal is insulting. That the NFL would even consider such a desperation ploy is an indictment of the league itself, an admission that team owners are not doing enough to diversify the viewpoints in their leadership positions, that bribery — bribery that affects their cherished competitive balance — is a viable option to force change.
Who doesn’t understand that any minority candidate hired under such parameters, no matter how qualified (or overqualified), would immediately face a room full of coworkers wondering about that résumé, and whether it was approved primarily to fill a quota?
Listen to Louis Riddick, the ESPN analyst and former Eagles personnel executive who interviewed for the Giants’ GM job that went to Dave Gettleman.
“If these policies are implemented, the first day I walk into the building, I know people with that organization would wonder: Did he get this job because he’s the best man for the job, or did he get it at least in part because it gives us a big break in the draft?" Riddick said to NBC’s Peter King.
"On the first day of the job, that team would be undermining its own hire by injecting doubt in the minds of the people who work in the building. Is that how you really want a GM to start off his career?”
Or, in the wise words of former NFL coach Tony Dungy, speaking to Pro Football Talk, “I just have never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing.”
The idea needs to stay permanently tabled. But the NFL did enact some strong new policies Tuesday. Removing barriers for assistant coaches to interview for “bona fide” opportunities elsewhere (though leaving commissioner Roger Goodell as the ultimate arbiter of what counts as “bona fide” doesn’t fill me with confidence). Requiring more external minority candidates be interviewed not only for head coach openings but for offensive, defensive, and special team coordinator positions. Applying that expanded pool policy to front office positions as well, going so far as to include female candidates along with minority ones.
The league also addressed one of the biggest hurdles, striking back on an old ownership trope that there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates. The pipeline needs to be opened up, with minority coaches historically not getting enough of those coveted coordinator slots, or even worse, the position-group coaching spot that most often leads to promotion: quarterbacks. In now requiring all 32 clubs to institute the coaching fellowship program that identifies and hires minority candidates, there should be progress.
Much-needed progress in the face of obvious regression.
There are four minority head coaches in the NFL, down from eight in 2018. There are two GMs, down from six in 2017. In each of the last three hiring cycles, one minority coach was hired among a total of 20 head coach openings.
It’s not that owners are unwilling to take a chance on unproven commodities. Joe Judge was hired by the Giants despite never having been a head coach at any level. Matt Rhule was hired from the college ranks by the Panthers. Kevin Stefanski of the Browns isn’t merely another career assistant, but at 38, he also defies an expectation of wisdom and experience.
But minority assistants such as Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy or Miami’s Eric Studesville? Passed over, again and again.
And it’s not that owners are unwilling to take a second chance on previous commodities either. Mike McCarthy is getting his do-over in Dallas. And Ron Rivera is getting his in Washington.
Rivera is one of the four head coaches of color currently in the league, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, and the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, and after taking the Panthers to a Super Bowl, he absolutely deserves another shot.
But what of Jim Caldwell? He’s available after winning a Super Bowl as an assistant with the Colts, then taking the Colts back to the big game as the head coach before getting the lowly Lions to two playoff appearances in four years.
What of Leslie Frazier, another Super Bowl-winning assistant in Indianapolis?
When you remember how quickly Rex Ryan’s failed Jets tenure got him hired in Buffalo, it’s fair to ask: What of Todd Bowles, who hasn’t sniffed a head job since being fired by the Jets?
If those coaches struggle for another chance, what hopes would Vance Joseph (fired after two years in Denver) or Steve Wilks (fired after one in Arizona) have of being hired again?
For so many people, it’s just too easy to ask why it even matters, to bring the argument back to the same old starting point. Just hire the most qualified guy, they say. Or worse, if you’re going to try to even the field in the coaching and front office ranks, why not on the playing field, where 70 percent of the players are Black?
It’s just so tiresome. The distinction between having the opportunity to beat out others for a job or possessing the ability to outperform them shouldn’t be that hard to discern.
It’s as clear as it was on the draft-night screens. Every pivot to Flores, every glimpse of Lynn, every camera swivel to Tomlin was jarring, NFL reality staring us in the face. If you don’t see it, you’re just not looking.