3 easy fixes that would help minorities advance in the NFL and CFL

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. (Gary Landers/AP)

The day following the conclusion of the NFL’s regular season has come to be known as “Black Monday,” as each year it’s a day when a number of head coaches are fired.

In 2018, five of the eight coaches sent packing on “Black Monday” were African American. When the 2018 NFL season began, the league employed eight minority head coaches, matching 2011 and 2017 for the most in a single season.

The latest round of firings now means that in a league where 70 per cent of its players are black, there are currently just two black head coaches: Anthony Lynn and Mike Tomlin. Add Ron Rivera to the mix and there are three minority coaches. It made me ask: What could be done to improve the situation?

The NFL’s “Rooney Rule” was named after Dan Rooney, former Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and head of the league’s diversity committee. It has been in place since 2003 for head coaches and was expanded in 2009 to include general manager positions. The league recently made an addendum to it, following outrage surrounding the Oakland Raiders hiring of head coach Jon Gruden. The updated Rooney Rule now requires teams to interview a minority candidate from outside their organization or a candidate from a league-approved list. But the NFL still hasn’t gone far enough, and we haven’t seen substantial change in the past 15 years.

With that in mind, here are three ideas that would provide a chance for more representative results.

1. Encourage greater diversity in executive ranks

Of course, there is even less diversity at the ownership level. Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars is the only minority NFL owner. It’s why many were hoping to see the Diddy and Stephen Curry-led bid to purchase the Carolina Panthers succeed, as it would have provided some much-needed diversity among the league’s leadership.

One thing that can still change, however, is for the league to provide owners wth more opportunities to hire minorities among their executive leadership groups.

At the conclusion of the 2016 season, there were seven black NFL general managers. In 2018, the Oakland Raiders fired Reggie McKenzie, a black man and the 2016 NFL Executive of the Year. When Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens retires at the end of this season, Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins will be the NFL’s lone African-American GM. Interviewing minority GM candidates is not enough.

Minorities should be interviewed for assistant GM positions as well, to ensure a deep pool of qualified candidates is available when GM openings become available.

2. Produce more minority offensive co-ordinators and backup QBs

The NFL is a copycat league. Only three playoff teams (Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots) have a defensive-minded head coach. To that end, there should be a Rooney Rule for co-ordinator jobs, specifically offensive co-ordinators. Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs and Byron Leftwich of the Arizona Cardinals are the league’s only current black offensive co-ordinators.

One barrier to minorities that has been removed over time is a black starting quarterback. Among this season’s 12 NFL playoff teams, five are led by a black quarterback. However, only six black quarterbacks fill out the remainder of the rosters on those teams.

Of the eight offensive-minded coaches leading playoff teams, three are not just former quarterbacks, but former backup quarterbacks. Frank Reich, Jason Garrett and Doug Pederson all spent the majority of their playing career holding a clipboard. Of all the positions on a football team, the backup QB is the most likely to become a head coach, and yet aside from the kicker, it is the least likely to be filled by a minority.

But if there are more minority offensive co-ordinators and backup QBs, then more head coaching opportunities should follow. Do you want to get in to mandating or giving cap relief to a team who carries a black QB on their depth chart? That’s probably too radical and puts the designated player in awkward position. But is it too much to mandate that teams bring a minority QB to training camp? I don’t think so. Having more backup QBs and OCs that are minorities should lead to more head coaches that are minorities if recent hiring patterns remain constant.

3. The CFL should adopt its own Rooney Rule, and collaborate with the NFL

The Canadian Football League doesn’t have an equivalent to the Rooney Rule, yet CFL teams recently hired three African American head coaches in the span of eight days. But make no mistake, this sudden market correction doesn’t mean the CFL no longer has its own challenges with minority hiring.

During the 2018 season the CFL employed no minority head coaches. And since Corey Chamblin was fired in 2015, Kavis Reed’s brief 2017 stint as interim head coach in Montreal had served as the only other time a minority led a CFL team prior to this recent hiring splurge.

I’ve asked CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie if a lack of diversity on the sidelines concerned him, particularly for a league whose much touted slogan is, “Diversity is Strength.”

He indicated it did, saying: “We should talk about everything. Everything should be on the table.”

Not only do I think the CFL would benefit from its own Rooney Rule, but I think it would be mutually beneficial for the two leagues to partner on it. If the NFL is curating a list of qualified minority candidates for vacancies, why not put CFL coaches on it too? Conversely, when the CFL is looking to recruit talent among their leadership, why not include vetted NFL names? The two leagues could share learnings and team up on professional development and networking opportunities for minority male and female employees.

Like many institutions in 2018, minorities over index on the front lines but are rarely empowered to lead. Pro football workforce dynamics aren’t much different than those in society as a whole. Affirmative action isn’t perfect, but with a few modifications, the spirit of the well-intentioned Rooney Rule could have more tangible benefits for all stakeholders.

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