“We inherited this problem,” said Vincent, a former NFL cornerback who was once the vice president of the NFL Players Association and brings a critical, well-rounded perspective to the league. “Now, what you going to do about it? What did you do for the least of ’em? If you don’t have a viable solution, get the hell out of my way. We’re moving. We’ve got so many people counting on us.”
On the issue of diversity, the NFL is a factor again, at last. And it is a threat. Those are the two resounding conclusions. Overall, the league has developed a better approach to improve its hiring practices. And in unleashing some chaos late last week after news broke of a radical draft-incentive proposal for minority hiring, it created a sense of desperation and urgency in its willingness to consider extreme measures.
The owners tabled that discussion during their virtual meeting Tuesday, but it seems a revised — and hopefully better — incentive proposal will be presented again after more conversation over the next year.
The incentive idea lit a match. And what a fire it made, as fans, coaches, executives and owners hustled to provide feedback before a potential vote. Although the proposal was widely criticized, the discussion awakened the unconcerned from willful ignorance.
“Was it radical?” Vincent wondered aloud. “It was out of the box. But it did one thing that we thought it would do: It spurred conversation. It put a spotlight on the truth. We are failing. We’ve got an issue here. This house is on fire.”
For most of the past five months, the NFL has worked diligently on its enhanced plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. The results may not be radical enough to receive mass attention, but if you know how the NFL operates, these are significant measures. The Rooney Rule has been expanded to require teams to interview at least two minority candidates from outside the organization for head coaching vacancies, at least one minority candidate for a senior football or general manager position and at least one minority candidate for any open coordinator jobs. For any other senior-level positions on teams or in the league, a minority or woman must be interviewed as well.
Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney, the chairman of the NFL workplace diversity committee and for whose father, Dan, the Rooney Rule is named, also outlined a resolution that enables increased mobility for coaches and executives throughout the league. It’s something that Vincent says has been an issue in the NFL “for decades.” Teams can no longer block staff from interviewing for jobs that would be promotions. The NFL also will require teams to report their organizational structures to the league office for better oversight, and every franchise must develop a diversity, equity and inclusion plan.
“Now we can gather more data to do our checks and balances and to hold people accountable,” Vincent said. “We didn’t have job descriptions and an organizational chart for all 32 clubs. There was no accountability. You’ve just created the wild, wild West. You’ve just created a gamesmanship culture.”
It’s mind-boggling that the NFL, for all its innovation in other areas, has such an outdated model. Dasha Smith, who was hired as the league’s chief people officer in November, expected a challenge. It has been a greater one than she envisioned. But she is encouraged by what is being built quickly.
“In working in entertainment and financial services before coming here, I implemented the Rooney Rule, and it worked incredibly well,” said Smith, who worked at Sony Music, Time Inc. and at an investment firm before coming to the NFL. “I’ve been surprised, quite frankly, in finding out that the league has fallen behind on a lot of basic policies that you see today. I came in surprised by the work that needs to be done. But on the other hand, I’m optimistic and excited because everyone is receptive.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sold Smith on the job with his candor and sincerity.
But the NFL is a very complicated business, with 32 different franchise personalities in addition to a league office. To have the greatest impact, you need the buy-in of the owners, many of whom are eccentric and don’t like having to answer to anyone. When it comes to diversity in hiring, they will decide whether all of these grand ideas and policies yield results.
In reality, the NFL — if you’re just referring to the New York office — has made significant strides in diversity under Goodell. The NFL numbers, outside a select few, have not.
Goodell is determined. And embarrassed. And limited, honestly. He can’t force the owners to change. He must convince them. And that’s why radical ideas have some appeal. That’s why this comprehensive plan attempts to create more points of entry for coaches and personnel of color to receive opportunities, professional development and help with networking.
If teams adhere to the new rules, more decision-makers throughout the league have skin in the diversity game. And there are chances to measure progress over short, medium and long periods.
But when it comes to hiring head coaches and GMs of color, it remains to be seen whether there are enough teeth in this approach. Will sham interviews continue? Will owners grow more comfortable with people from different backgrounds leading their teams?
Today, it feels as if there is more hope than there was in January, when five head coaching vacancies resulted in just one minority hire. That hiring cycle made Vincent and others “sick to our stomach.”
“It was just, like, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he said. “Again.”
It’s a very infuriating, insulting place to be. It’s also sobering to have to acknowledge the feeling of desperation.
While the league is far from perfect, Goodell is making his strongest push for progress. He needs more help than he is getting, however.
If the owners refuse to prioritize diversity, the effort will turn into nothing more than a sad workaround. And what a waste of momentum and hope that would be.
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