The NFL saw gains in its top football executive positions, with three franchises hiring Black general managers after there had been only two during the 2020 season. But just two of seven head coach openings went to minority candidates, and in a league with roughly 70 percent Black players, the number of Black head coaches remained static at three following the firing of Los Angeles Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn and the hiring of longtime assistant David Culley by the Houston Texans.
Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said he was “disappointed” that more Black head coaches were not hired and added that the group and the league will have to reevaluate teams’ hiring procedures to determine whether “something totally different” must be done.
“Overall, I think there were some gains,” Graves said in a phone interview. “We were certainly just disappointed in the fact that we didn’t have the progress on the head coach side that we had certainly felt we worked for, not only the Fritz Pollard Alliance but the league office and others who were certainly interested in that area.”
Culley, previously the Baltimore Ravens’ wide receivers coach, finalized an agreement with the Texans on Thursday. He joins the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores as the NFL’s only Black head coaches, with Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs snubbed after the third consecutive year of receiving multiple interviews, to the surprise and dismay of many in the league.
“I’m glad I have him, but I’m not so glad I have him,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. “I was really hoping he would have an opportunity to take one of these jobs.”
The other minority coach hired was Robert Saleh by the New York Jets. He was born in Michigan to Lebanese parents.
“My feelings are [the results were] lackluster, simply because of what took place on the head coach side,” said Graves, formerly the general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. “We only had one Black head coach hired in the period. If you consider Robert Saleh as a person of color, then we have two. But given the fact that we had seven openings, I think the expectation certainly was that we’d do better than having one Black coach hired.”
The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Commissioner Roger Goodell said in November, “We all recognize that we must do more to support development opportunities for minority coaches and all personnel.” Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, said last month that he hoped for improved results during this hiring cycle and that “we’re not seeing true inclusion” across all pro sports.
Three Black general managers were hired: Martin Mayhew by the Washington Football Team, Brad Holmes by the Detroit Lions and Terry Fontenot by the Atlanta Falcons. Before that, the league had two Black GMs: Miami’s Chris Grier and the Cleveland Browns’ Andrew Berry. There were seven general manager vacancies filled leaguewide.
The NFL enacted several measures since the spring aimed at improving its minority hiring results. They included bolstering interview requirements for minority candidates and implementing a new rule to reward a team that develops a minority candidate hired by another franchise as a head coach or GM. The Ravens, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will receive two additional third-round draft picks each under that measure, while the San Francisco 49ers, who had Saleh hired by the Jets and Mayhew by Washington, will receive a trio of third-round draft choices.
Graves said he was satisfied with the interview procedures that teams followed. The scrutiny, he said, must be placed on the hiring decisions made by franchise owners.
“I think we need to really focus on the owner and the decision-making aspect of it,” Graves said. “I’m not certain what the answer is. I really feel like a player who’s sitting in the locker room right after the game, a little bit dismayed over what just happened. I think we need to just sit back and evaluate whether the processes and the approach that we’ve been taking are the same approaches that need to be applied going forward or whether we need to do something totally different. But at the end of the day, we do recognize that the key to these decisions is always the owner.”
Graves’s dismay was shared by others in the sport.
“I’m a Black man in America who works in football with a union,” DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said this week. “And every now and then, you actually in this job still find yourself scratching your head when you have to justify that you’re even at the table. So for people of color, women, groups of people who have been discriminated against in this country, this is still one of those businesses where I think, unfortunately, people are still having to justify that they’re here and having to engage in aggressive measures just to increase their presence. That’s just real.”
Smith said the NFLPA has “a few concrete ideas” that it plans to share with the league, at the NFL’s request, after the Super Bowl.
“Transparency in the process and accountability is what you see in almost every corporation in America who has seriously taken to heart measures to increase diversity,” Smith said. “And those are the things that we want to talk to the league about.”
The NFL’s latest measures were enacted after no Black head coaches were hired last offseason. Only one minority head coach, Washington’s Ron Rivera, was hired during last year’s cycle.
Some observers are particularly upset that Bieniemy was passed over again, even with the Chiefs about to make a second straight Super Bowl appearance and despite frequent endorsements by Reid, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes and others.
“Obviously Eric has the highest profile because of the fact that he’s been a person of focus coming into it and coming out of last year,” Graves said. “Eric is a damn good coach, and there’s no reason why he should be excluded from our sidelines as an NFL head coach. For whatever reasons can be given — whether it’s reasons that have been put up in the past where he didn’t call plays, presentations weren’t great, whatever the case may be — they’re all erroneous and without merit. And so I am very disappointed that he did not come out of this period having gained a head coach position.”
Temple University human resource management professor Patrick McKay, who has published award-winning research about workplace diversity, said the NFL’s minority interview rules have failed because of the discretion of owners. The vast majority of the league’s owners and top executives is White. Leaders across industries tend to hire people from their own social and racial groups, McKay said, whether they intend to or not.
“You’ll have these nebulous statements like, ‘He provided a better fit.’ Which is code for, ‘He looks like me, so I’m comfortable around him,’ ” McKay said. “This other person, I’ve got to denigrate them and make a justification for not selecting him. We do a lot of mental gymnastics to justify our choice.”
In Houston, Culley accepted a job that was widely considered one of the least desirable of those that became available. He inherits a 4-12 team and an uncomfortable situation with star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has asked the Texans to trade him.
“Diversity hires alone are not the solution if you have a team that does not provide the environment for those diverse hires to succeed,” said Brooklyn Law School professor Jodi Balsam, who worked for the NFL as an in-house lawyer from 1994 to 2006. “Diverse hires shouldn’t raise expectations when they are hired only to struggling teams. It’s great to make diverse hires. Yes, let’s support that. Put them in situations where they can succeed, not fail.”