Brian Flores, Other Insiders Speak on Addressing Racism in the NFL

Late-night talk show hosts Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert offered a blend of comedic and serious commentaries about the racial discrimination lawsuit that former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores recently filed against the NFL and its teams. So many explanations have been offered for why all but five head coaches across the League’s 32 teams are white. The 70 percent of NFL players are Black statistic has been repeatedly amplified over the past two weeks. Yet, weirdly, there is one group of people from whom far too little is being heard on this topic: Black NFL insiders.

I suspect we’ve heard so little from current players because of how white team owners, general managers, head coaches, and league executives suppress Black men’s freedom of expression. They pushed Colin Kaepernick out the NFL when he began kneeling in protest of police brutality and systemic racism during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner in 2016. A year later, the 32 owners developed a policy that would fine players who chose to take a knee during the national anthem. The control of Black men is neither new nor limited to kneeling. There are tremendous attempts to regulate what pro sports players are permitted to wear. Rarely do the white men who employ them allow Black players to speak out on racial justice issues. There is an ever-present looming threat of being fired and barred from playing on other teams, like they did to Kaepernick. This pattern has had a silencing effect on retired Black players, which at least partially explains why the public hears so little from them about the NFL’s well-known racial inequities.

Despite all this, four Black NFL insiders generously agreed to talk on the record for this article: Coach Brian Flores; Marcedes Lewis, who currently plays for the Green Bay Packers; Kahlil McKenzie, who is in his third season with the Baltimore Ravens; and Akin Ayodele, a retiree who played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and Buffalo Bills.

We did not spend our time together searching for explanations about why Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans are the only two Black NFL head coaches (plus there is Mike McDaniel, a multiracial man who was just named head coach of the Miami Dolphins). We didn’t talk about the Rooney Rule, the NFL’s ineffective policy that requires teams to interview at least one person of color for head coaching and top leadership roles. And I didn’t ask these men to comment on the absurdity of New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick mistakenly notifying Flores via text messaging that the New York Giants had hired another candidate for its head coaching role three days before Flores was scheduled to interview for the job. By the time I spoke with each of these NFL insiders, all of this had been talked about on a staggering number of TV shows and podcasts.

So, what did we talk about? Solutions. These men are experts on their industry, and have insights on how to diversify its highest ranks. Together, we identified nine things the NFL must do if it is serious about increasing the number of Black head coaches and executives. To be sure, nine actions won’t undo decades of racial harm and negligence, but I believe the ideas we offer would be a good start.

Increase Black Ownership

“The first thing, number one is Black ownership,” Flores insists. “We must have a seat at the owner’s table … there are no Black voices in those meetings.” League expansion would present a serious opportunity for Black ownership, Flores adds. Ayodele notes that it isn’t just owners, but also general managers who have a major say in head coach selection. “There are not enough Black men in the pool from which scouts pull GMs.”

 Consistently Enforce Hiring Policies

Having spent a decade as an NFL player, Ayodele has seen the nepotism that occurs in the industry. When owners decide who becomes head coaches, he contends, “They hire their buddies, or their friends’ friends. Not necessarily on merit.” Ayodele feels the consistent enforcement of existing hiring policies and clear standards could address the problem of highly experienced and accomplished Black men being bypassed for relatively underqualified white candidates. If the League decides to keep the Rooney Rule, there must also be serious accountability if teams fail to achieve and sustain demographic change.

Hire a Trustworthy External Oversight Firm

Flores also called for external oversight of the League’s hiring and firing practices. The hiring of an outside firm that would systematically audit and certify every head coaching and executive search. That firm must analyze its findings through the prisms of racial and gender equity. “Right now, the owners say, ‘hey I want this guy’… there really is no rhyme or reason,” Flores says. “Nobody is looking at the different interviews to determine whether one guy interviewed better than the others. It really comes down to, ‘I am most comfortable with this coach, so that’s who we’re going to hire.’” It is clear that the NFL cannot be trusted to ensure appropriate levels of integrity and accountability across all 32 of its teams. They need a reputable partner whose integrity can’t be compromised in exchange for Super Bowl tickets and other perks.

Commit to Greater Transparency

League and team executives must be more transparent if the NFL is ever really going to advance the ball on head coach and executive-level diversity. Lewis asserts that “too much happens behind the scenes in the coach selection process.” Transparency should include public-facing results of the external firm’s audit reports, as well as demographic data disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, level (head coach, coordinator, assistant coach, etc.), age, and tenure as an NFL employee.  Making the process less opaque to the players and public at the League and individual team levels will let everyone know where progress has been made and where work needs to be done.

Include Players in Hiring Processes

A multidimensional strategy that includes the input of Black players is essential to leadership diversification, McKenzie argues. He didn’t suggest that it had to be only Black men. Some players such as leadership council members and captains are already afforded occasional opportunities to provide input on various team matters but hiring is not usually one of them. McKenzie thinks a more inclusive approach would yield a different outcome because players know best what makes someone a great coach for them. Because 7 out of 10 players across the League are Black, it seems that any plan designed to increase Black coaches and team executives is destined to fail without their meaningful involvement.

Embrace Different Styles of Coaching Excellence

“Hire me because I am capable of leading a group of men,” insists Lewis, who has played on two NFL teams over the past 16 years. Multidimensionality is required of an excellent coach; the role is about so much more than Xs and Os. Consistently across the three player interviews, each advocated for a broader consideration of coaching excellence. “It can’t be just about who’s a good strategist,” one of them tells me. The players weren’t calling for the NFL to lower its standards, but instead to appreciate that Black men possess tremendous leadership capabilities that are essential to building a winning team, yet those qualities are often undervalued in head coach selection processes. Again, they contend that players know who will bring out the best in them and therefore should have a say in who becomes their head coach.

Create Head Coaching Pathway Programs

Ayodele thinks the creation of player-to-coaching pathway programs could produce demographic change, even if it takes several years before the participants rise to the level of head coaches. “If you ask current and former players, they’ll tell you there are many guys they’ve played with who can naturally transition into coaching because they have a knack for it. They have a process that really helps them dissect the game even better than many of the men who’ve coached them.” Ayodele went on to say that he knows a few players who’ve made the leap to coaching roles, but not enough of them, especially at the head coach level. He also pointed out the frequency with which head coaches turn over in the NFL (on average, it is around four years). This provides every team a strategic opportunity to increase diversity, but they must have a plan to do so and a cadre of Black coaches who are primed for immediate ascension.

Commission a Systemic Study of The League

Lewis feels that corrective racial equity actions must be taken long before a search commences for a new head coach. Until the larger constellation of systems, structures, cultures, mindsets, and policies that repeatedly reproduce racial inequities in all aspect of the sport are addressed, the absence of Black coaches will remain a persistent problem for NFL teams. Taking action first requires deeply understanding root causes. A university-based racial equity research center could execute this study. Its report ought to include findings as well as concrete recommendations the league can implement.

Unionize

The formation of a minority coaches’ union was the final solution Flores offers. “You should hear some of the stories that I’ve heard over the past 10 days, it would blow your mind,” he says. “My first inclination was to ask, ‘how could you let someone get away with this?’” Coming together through a union would lessen the risk of any one Black coach sacrificing his career and livelihood as he attempts to dismantle systemic racism all by himself. In addition to amassing enough collective power to accelerate racial equity, Flores suggests a union could help develop pipelines for the career advancement of coaches of color. One consequence of the severe underrepresentation of Black men in head coaching roles is the limited availability of same-race insiders who can help ensure that others like them, who aspire to similar positions, know how to speak to what owners, general managers, and other executives who are engaged in the selection process value. The union that Flores is advocating could be a space where coordinators and assistant coaches of color become more fully prepared for head coaching interviews.

I went into these interviews convinced a significant Black NFL athlete protest movement was the only way to immediately accelerate the hiring of more Black coaches. I still believe this is the surest way. However, I am confident that the ideas these four men offered would be a start to demographic change. I offer additional recommendations in the USC Race and Equity Center’s newest report, Advancing and Sustaining Racial Justice in Pro Sports. Approximately 1,200 Black men currently play in the NFL, and many more are among the League’s retirees. Imagine how many more solutions could be offered if they were treated as experts on their coaching needs and if white executives stopped silencing Black athletes’ voices on racism in their industry.

Shaun Harper is a provost professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. He also is founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.

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