Affirmative action finally appears on its way to the front offices of major league football, or so private chats with black politicians would indicate.
At issue are some sobering statistics: Since 1960 only 12 of 261 assistant coaches who were National Football League players have been black. Of the 68 head coaches who were former players, none have been black. There has never been a black general manager. There are no blacks in the collective bargaining arm of the NFL, nor any in a policymaking position in the NFL office. The hiring of coaches is a highly informal affair controlled by the owners.
Almost all the black politicians contracted agreed that of the three major professional sports -- football, baseball and basketball -- NFL football had the biggest discrimination problem.
One black mayor of a city with an NFL team noted, "I'm having the report on institutional discrimination (issued by the NFL Players Association) studied carefully." The study, conducted by Dr. Jomills Braddock of Johns Hopkins University, shows that race continues to be an important factor in the selection of assistant and head coaches in the NFL, that being black severely lessens one's chance of attaining a managerial position.
It was pointed out that fans of a winning team, black or white, are unlikely to want to change a winning combination. One mayor's assistant commented, "We're winning football games back home now. The boss (mayor) would have to negotiate very delicately with the owner. And our local white press only cares about whether we win."
Another black mayor of a large southern city with an NFL team remarked, "It's laughable. I'd have an easier time appointing a black fire chief than getting a black assistant coach appointed on our pro football team. These (team) owners enjoy special tax considerations in stadiums built on public property. It's time they found some black assistants."
It was further pointed out by a former black player that efforts to correct this racial imbalance would probably not get too much help from current black players. "The competition for jobs is so fierce that any troublemakers are let go immediately under the pretext that they are destroying team morale. Football teams are run like basic training camps. You either get with the program or you get out -- whether you like the program or not."
The idea of a black players group has been bandied about. A consortium of civil rights groups possibly would ask a few black stars to sit out a game as a protest against the lack of blacks in managerial and coaching positions.
Another idea calls for a select group of black players to personally present a minority hiring proposal to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL owners. The sight of black stars presenting a practical proposal to the owners after this season ends would surely pay dividends.
The owners would do well to design their own minority hiring program. Rather than await the inevitable charges and countercharges, a publicly announced statement of purpose would do wonders. It would ensure the cooperation of civil rights groups and increase the likelihood of finding "qualified" black management talent the first time around.
"Rozelle keeps throwing that 'qualified' provision in our faces," says a black former New York Jet star. "What does 'qualified' mean? That I can play tick-tack-toe (understand the diagrams of plays) or communicate with white players? I thought baseball and basketball destroyed that myth ages ago."
Black college coaching staffs are loaded with qualified prospects for NFL assistants' jobs. There really is no excuse for the NFL to say it cannot find the people. They are there for the asking.
An unstated reason why there are no black head coaches is that the first one appointed would be difficult to fire. The National Basketball Association owners went through this once and found it not to be a problem. NFL owners might find this instructive. Many used to feel that black head coaches would have to be given a longer time to prove themselves. "Some of us would just like the opportunity to fail in the NFL," noted one black head coach of a highly ranked black college.
Black players are irked by Rozelle's statement that, "The NFL is no worse than the networks and newspapers covering the NFL with respect to the hiring of blacks." Replied the former Jet star: "That is like saying three wrongs make a right. But Pete works for the owners. He doesn't work for the players. They pay his salary. We don't."
Since 1965, less than one-third of all NFL head coaches have had .500 seasons. Somewhere there is room for black coaches. In a sport that is 50 percent black on the field, it is only natural to expect that a fairer representation of managerial positions go to blacks. The way is there. Only the will is missing.