Brian Flores, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, filed a lawsuit on Feb. 1 against the National Football League claiming racial discrimination. Flores argues he was fired by the Dolphins out of a combination of anti-Black discrimination and as punishment for refusing to engage in misconduct on behalf of the team owner.
The legal complaint further alleges systematic racial discrimination in the hiring of coaches and other personnel. In addition to the now-infamous texts from New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, the prima facie evidence offered is the disparity between the players, who are 70 percent Black, and the head coaches, who are overwhelmingly White.
How incriminating — or not — are those statistics on the relative diversity of NFL players and coaches? Some might suggest that NFL players don’t make up the entire pool of potential coaches. But by closely examining any plausible definition of who’s in that pool, we find evidence of profound pro-White bias in even the league’s most recent hiring.
Comparing actual hires to the potential pool
Charges of racial discrimination often involve asking whether the people given a job are much less diverse than the people in the applicant pool.
One way to think about fairness is to ask how likely it is that an unbiased process could produce the status quo. Say I have a party trick of flipping a coin 10 times and getting 10 heads. Could I be using a fair coin? There is a one in 1,024 chance of flipping 10 heads in a row with a normal coin. Common sense suggests that I am likely using an unfair coin.
The Flores legal complaint makes this kind of argument, claiming the contrast between the overwhelmingly Black players and mostly White coaches is “not by chance. Rather, the statistics … are the result of race discrimination.”
Are there pipeline problems?
Employers defending themselves against charges of race discrimination often argue the candidate pool is small or not very racially diverse, inevitably producing a small number of minority people hired.
The pool of people who could plausibly be NFL head coaches is small and not very diverse. The 32 coaches who started the 2021 season all had prior experience on an NFL coaching staff. The most common job before being a head coach is an NFL offensive coordinator — a group that is currently 80 percent White — or an NFL defensive coordinator, currently 60 percent White.
But who is responsible for the complexion of the pool? The NFL is a monopoly employer of professional football coaches at every level. It’s liable for racial discrimination in most of the jobs that lead to being an NFL head coach.
Still, even those statistics are fairly incriminating.
Since February 2021, 10 people have been hired as NFL head coaches. Eight of them are White. Let’s assume that the only plausible pool for those hires was the previous season’s offensive and defensive coordinators plus any newly fired head coaches. In fact, all 10 hires do come from those categories. That pool was between 70 and 80 percent White. If the hiring process did not favor White candidates, the chances of hiring eight White people from that pool is only about one in four — or plus-322 in sportsbook terms.
Even that calculation implies there is a reasonable chance — one in four — that the NFL’s homogenous head coaches are the result of the limited diversity of a candidate pool made of coordinators and ex-head coaches. That’s not really a defense the NFL owners can use, though, since that pool reflects the league’s own hiring practices.
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The NFL’s real coaching pool
However, the Flores complaint’s suggestion that NFL veterans are the natural hiring pool for NFL coaches is not quite right, either. In fact, only about a third of NFL head coaches ever played in the league.
Most NFL head coaches do have a background playing NCAA college football. Of the 32 head coaches who started the 2021 season, 30 played in the NCAA and 27 played in Division I. College football players are an apt benchmark for the pool of plausible NFL coaches, because college is the last shared step on the path to NFL head coach that is not under the NFL’s control. (Many NFL head coaches have coached college football.)
Among NFL head coaches in 2021-2022, 14 are young enough to have played in the NCAA since 1999, when that organization started publishing the demographics of its student-athletes. This group of 14 coaches includes Flores, who is the only person of color.
These 14 coaches come from the cohort of NCAA football players who played between 1999 and 2007, a group who were 60 percent White and 30 percent Black. Division I players in the same years were 49 percent White and 44 percent Black.
In other words, these 14 NFL coaches — a 92 percent White group — are not racially representative of their cohort. If NFL hiring were race-neutral, there would be just a 3 percent chance that only one Black person would be among those 14 coaches. The odds that only one of the 14 would be a person of color are 100 to one.
Limits of the ‘Rooney Rule’
Twenty years ago, several civil rights lawyers published a report charging the NFL with racial discrimination in its selection of head coaches. The league’s response was the “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams searching for a head coach to interview at least one minority candidate. In 2009, the rule was expanded to cover more positions. The statistics used here mostly came from reports and studies commissioned by NFL owners in an effort to be seen as committed to diversity.
Nonetheless, hiring data from the Rooney Rule era suggests that these may not have been good-faith efforts. If NFL hiring had no pro-White bias, the chances that it would have so many new, White NFL head coaches would be slim to none.
Bethany Lacina (@bethany_lacina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester.