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The NFL's Race Problem
[January 1, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

On Saturday, the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts will face off in the opening round of the 2003 NFL playoffs. The coaches of the two teams, the Colts' Tony Dungy and New York's Herman Edwards, will have a reunion of sorts, since both men worked in Tampa Bay, where Dungy was the head coach until last year, and Edwards was his top assistant. Both teams play a similar style of football, and both feature exciting young quarterbacks looking to make their mark in the postseason. By all expectations, it should be an exciting game that showcases some of the NFL's best playing and coaching talents.

But for some people, the story of this game will be race. Dungy and Edwards are the only African-American head coaches in the NFL, and this game serves as a symbol of racism to those people—notably the sports media—who feel there aren't enough black head coaches in the league. This fixation on race is unfortunate, and irrational, but it nonetheless has become an issue the NFL feels compelled to address. The league's solution, however, may in fact exacerbate the perceived problem.

Earlier this month, NFL owners adopted a quasi-affirmative action program for coaching hires. Under the policy, any team that has a coaching vacancy agrees to interview at least one "minority" candidate for the position. The idea behind this is to give black candidates "exposure" to the interview process, which will in turn increase the likelihood of additional black coaching hires.

It sounds nice in theory, but its practical application has already fallen short. Since Monday, three teams have fired their coaches: Dallas, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville. All three teams have talked to black candidates, but the impact has not been what the NFL expected. In Dallas, former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green—a "minority" candidate—was given a token interview before owner Jerry Jones hired Bill Parcells. It had been known for more than a week that Parcells, who is white, was Jones' preferred candidate. Green is still considered a candidate in Jacksonville, though his hiring is unlikely, as owner Wayne Weaver is unwilling to give Green the personnel control he is seeking.

Cincinnati meanwhile received permission to speak with Washington Redskins assistant head coach Marvin Lewis, a "minority" candidate. Lewis is reportedly uncertain about the job, in part because he feels the organization may not give him the support he would need, and in part because he fears he's a red herring like Green, an intermediate obstacle towards Cincinnati's reported frontrunner, former Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin.

Lewis will not interview with a team that's not serious about him. This is rational and completely understandable. No man should allow himself to be used as a pawn. But if that is the case—if Cincinnati is using Lewis—than the guilty party is not the Bengals organization, but the NFL itself. It is the league that foisted this idiotic interviewing policy. They did so in response to pressure from racial interest groups and the media, who would have you believe a lack of racial diversity among 32 NFL coaches is akin to genocide.

The policy is supposed to promote minority candidates for head coaching jobs. But the two men who have allegedly benefited from the policy so far—Green and Lewis—were not lacking for promotion beforehand. They have been, in fact, the two most prominent black coaching candidates for more than a year. Green is an ESPN commentator, while Lewis is the highest paid NFL assistant coach at more than $1 million per year. Neither man requires special assistance from the league office to get an interview. And the new policy will not make it any more likely that either will be hired.

If anything, the NFL policy may work against hiring coaches like Green and Lewis. After all, why would an NFL team risk hiring a black coach that may not work out. Given the immense media pressure to hire a black coach, firing one—and as the NFL axiom goes, coaches are hired to be fired—would create a potential backlash. Furthermore, coaches like Lewis will be suspicious of any interview granted to them, since they'll now assume it was granted because of skin color, not ability or credentials. This essentially poisons the hiring process before it has even begun.

Frankly, it's not even clear why the current lack of black head coaches is even a genuine problem. In other industries, the lack of black managers is thought to imply institutional racism. But the NFL, like most sports leagues, has an inverted business model. The players—not the coaches and general managers—tend to make far more money. The players are what sell tickets and generate revenue and fan interest, far more so than any coach does. And the majority of NFL players are black. In a sense, they possess the economic power within the league, and that strikes me as being far more relevant than the guys wearing headsets on the sidelines.

Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that suggests NFL owners are themselves racist when it comes to coaching hires. That was not the case in generations past, when many NFL owners resisted even having black players. Institutional racism was common in most professional sports through the 1960s. But that is not the case today, and it's completely irrational to hold today's owners responsible for past sins.

If you're looking for a factor that contributes to certain qualified coaches not getting jobs, consider specialization. Football, unlike say basketball, is a sport built on highly specialized talents and systems. What works for one team does not necessarily work for another. Teams often don't hire the best coach available—black or white—but the coach that best fits a particular system or need. Take Green Bay for example. When Ray Rhodes was fired after one season, some claimed it was because Rhodes was black. In fact, the decision had more to do with preserving Green Bay's traditional offensive system, which management felt changed too drastically under Rhodes. Rhodes was replaced with Mike Sherman, a former Green Bay assistant who on paper looked less qualified than Rhodes. But the move worked, and Green Bay is now near the top of the NFL standings. This doesn't mean Rhodes was a bad coach; it just meant he didn't meet the particular needs of Green Bay at the time.

Football coaches are themselves specialists, with most earning their credentials as offensive or defensive coordinators. This can work against you when you apply for a head coaching job with a team looking to go the other way. Last year Marvin Lewis was nearly offered the Tampa Bay head coaching job before ownership vetoed the deal. The issue wasn't Lewis' race or qualifications, but his specialty. Lewis is a defensive coach. Tampa Bay wanted an offensive specialist, so they went out and hired Jon Gruden. You can argue whether Tampa made the right call, but you cannot reasonably attribute their decision to skin color.

If there is a race problem in the NFL, it's one that originates with the media writers who insist on making race a factor in coaching decisions. Michael Wilbon, a veteran columnist for the Washington Post, is the most frightening example of this. In 2000, when Washington dumped head coach Norv Turner and promoted black assistant Terry Robiskie to be interim coach (a promotion that came after Ray Rhodes, the defensive coordinator, turned it down), Wilbon openly stated that the Redskin players would play harder for Robiskie than Turner, because Robiskie was black and the team would have a vested racial interest in seeing him succeed. That prediction was quickly disproven by Washington's anemic 1-2 finish.

Wilbon's comments amounted to pure tribalism. His theory was that players thought of themselves first as the member of a racial group, not as fully-realized individuals seeking to accomplish a goal in a team setting. This is not the first time Wilbon has made that suggestion. In a column last year on Tiger Woods, Wilbon dismissed any talk of Woods being judged as an individual; Wilbon said Woods would always be viewed by the outside world as a black athlete, and Woods would have to accept that role as fate. Indeed, if Woods were to accept this fate, he would richly deserve the label of "black athlete." But to his credit, the world's top professional golfer continues to operate as an individual unshackled by the burdens of tribal chieftains like Wilbon.

When all is said and done, I do hope Marvin Lewis and Dennis Green return to the NFL as head coaches. But I want their returns to be on the merits and in the right situations, not as the result of pandering to self-proclaimed media. Lewis has made it clear that he'll accept a job on his terms, not because he sees himself as a symbol of racial progress. That belief alone makes me think Lewis is more than ready to take over an NFL team and lead it to a Super Bowl.

 

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