LOS ANGELES — Protecting the shield is a phrase that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell likes to throw around. With the NFL and its owners under fire for punting on meaningful progress concerning diversity and equity in the screening and hiring of head coaches, Goodell acted as a human shield during his State of the League address.
Goodell was the designated Diversity Dartboard. He fielded pointed question after pointed question about the clubs’ repeated and deep-seated failure to provide a level playing field for Black coaching candidates.
He took all the slings and arrows of justified outrage that should’ve been aimed at the folks responsible for the NFL’s sorry, Detroit Lions-esque record on diversity, the folks doing the hiring. This is why Goodell gets paid $64 million per year – to answer for the owners and to answer the questions the owners don’t want to. He’s a football flak jacket.
The commish said all the right things and repeated all the proper aphorisms and affirmations about the importance of diversity. He promised to leave no stone unturned in improving the situation. But the people who really need to answer for the NFL’s lackluster performance on this front were nowhere to be found or heard from.
They were like children hiding behind a mother’s apron, except they were hiding behind Goodell’s well-coifed hair and designer suit.
Goodell can change rules, but it’s going to take NFL owners changing their hearts and minds to effectuate meaningful progress.
Goodell is an easy villain for football fans, especially in New England, but he has been an advocate on this issue, along with league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who is Black.
Ultimately, his answers ring hollow because addressing NFL employment inequality is out of his hands. Goodell can answer the questions, but the solutions have to start with his bosses.
The good news is that the league is being forcefully forced to confront an uncomfortable truth during its marquee moment, the Super Bowl. There are two ways for us plebeians to penetrate the reality distortion fields that billionaire NFL owners inhabit: Mess with their money and their reputations.
A lawsuit filed by former Patriots assistant coach and former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores against the NFL and three of its teams (the Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants) has done just that. Flores, who was passed over for seven jobs before filing his lawsuit despite being the most qualified available coaching candidate on paper, alleges discriminatory hiring practices and sham interviews to satisfy the Rooney Rule are happening to him and other Black coaches.
His case has overtaken all talk of Super Bowl LVI, and shined a black light on the messy juxtaposition between the composition and complexion of the employees wearing helmets and the ones wearing headsets.
“I put the legal claims and the legal process to the side and that will be handled by lawyers,” said Goodell. “To me, it’s more important for us to listen to Coach [Flores] and understand what he and other coaches are going through . . .and again evaluate everything we’re doing.
“I admire and respect Coach [Flores] a lot. I hope we’ll get a lot of feedback not just from Coach Flores, but everybody in this league. That’s what is going to make us better.”
Goodell was blunt about the progress, or lack thereof, the league has made on this front since the Rooney Rule, which has been tweaked several times over the years, was instituted in 2003.
“We believe in diversity. We believe in it as a value. We believe it has made [the NFL stronger] . . . We just have to do a better job,” said Goodell. “We have to look is there another thing that we can do to make sure we’re attracting that best talent here and making our league inclusive.
“If I had the answer right now I would give it to you. I would’ve implemented it. I think what we have to do is continue and find and look and step back and say, ‘We’re not doing a good enough job here.’ We need to find better solutions and better outcomes.”
This isn’t Spygate, Bountygate, or Deflategate where the owners can put Goodell out front while he does their bidding and mediates their score-settling. There should’ve been an NFL owner up on that stage with Goodell answering questions.
The league has a workplace diversity committee. Someone from that committee should’ve been up there with Goodell or should have a planned availability here in LA. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, a member of that committee, was in attendance for Goodell’s presser.
Showcasing the depth of the NFL’s problem, another member of that committee is Giants owner John Mara, whose team is among those Flores is suing, alleging the Giants put him through a sham interview just to satisfy the Rooney Rule.
There are certain influential owners in the NFL (cough, cough) who love the spotlight and love being seen as benevolent stewards and pro football powerbrokers. Where were they on Wednesday when Goodell was left to be a punching bag?
The NFL is the ultimate exclusive private club. Peer pressure and conformity in that rarefied stratum is an effective motivator. Only owners can effectuate the change the NFL needs.
Two of the nine head coaching vacancies this offseason were filled by minorities and both of those hires — Mike McDaniel in Miami and Lovie Smith with the Houston Texans — came after Flores filed his lawsuit on Feb. 1.
Three of the league’s 32 coaches have Black heritage, including McDaniel. Five of the NFL’s 32 coaches are people of color with Ron Rivera of the Washington Commanders and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets.
In the league’s latest Diversity and Inclusion report, Vincent is quoted in the preface with a dire but blunt assessment of the owners’ efforts.
“Since the inception of the Occupational Mobility Report, there have been incremental advances in professional opportunities and growth for minorities that spark glimmers of hope,” he said. “However, those tiny sparks have yet to foster a flame toward reaching the ultimate objective of a fair and open process for all.”
That’s all minority coaches want, an open and fair process for all.
Goodell wants that, too.
“We have to make sure we make the NFL a diverse and inclusive organization that allows everyone the opportunity to be successful.”
But, ultimately, he can’t ensure that. Only the owners can, and their silence on this issue on Wednesday was deafening and disappointing.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.