I don’t know whether an NFL official, or maybe a team official or two, took to the pulpit Tuesday in a very private memorial ceremony in San Diego for Dennis Green, who in 1992 with Minnesota was given the chance to be just the third black head coach in NFL history. Fritz Pollard in the ’20s before the NFL segregated itself. Art Shell in the late ’80s. Green in the early ’90s.
Green died July 21 at age 67. It was reported that he suffered cardiac arrest. His second and last NFL head coaching job ended with Arizona after the 2006 season following a short stint.
But if any NFL officials did have the chance to recall Green, they shouldn’t have ended just with him. They should’ve extended their condolences to what should be his legacy.
They also should have eulogized the dreams of the men Green championed but who haven’t been as fortunate as him — other black NFL head coaching aspirants who’ve watched, or are watching, their hopes die in deferment. Guys like Karl Dorrell. Craig Johnson. Curtis Modkins. Teryl Austin. Ray Horton. Perry Fewell.
Green was one of seven NFL head coaches of color in his last season. Just six such coaches looked to start training camps this month.
More disturbing, Mike Sando at ESPN.com reported recently that NFL clubs the past five hiring cycles, 2012 to 2016, hired one first-time coach of color, Todd Bowles, while extending the same opportunity to 21 first-time white head coaches. Sando noted it was an “identical 21-1” ratio from nearly two decades ago, 1997 to 2001.
It all generated a discussion about what was wrong with the league’s Rooney Rule, a rule implemented in 2003 requiring teams to interview candidates of color for head coaching and top management jobs. Observers wondered whether it needed fixing, or should be thrown out altogether.
There isn’t anything wrong with the rule. It isn’t in need of repair or of being tossed.
There is something wrong with the people tasked with hiring in the NFL. They are in need of training or firing if they can’t more fairly assess candidates for their most plum and important jobs.
Indeed, before Super Bowl 50 kicked off in February, Georgetown professor Chris Rider, a social scientist, and three colleagues produced the findings of a study they conducted of NFL coaching hires over a little more than a quarter century ending in 2012. Their results, published on the Social Science Research Network, found white coaches were roughly twice as likely to be promoted to coordinator jobs, which is generally the launching pad to become a head coach, than minorities.
During much of that time, Green was active in hiring black coaches as coordinators and position coaches. He returned Tony Dungy to defensive coordinator after Dungy had a lesser title in Kansas City following a coordinator job in Pittsburgh. He hired Tyrone Willingham as a running backs coach before Willingham became a hot college head coach. Earlier, while he was head coach at Northwestern, Green hired Jim Caldwell as an assistant and helped spark his long coaching career.
“What we can say in some of the analysis we’ve done since we made our working paper public, and this hasn’t been released yet, is that when we account for someone’s network [coaching tree], that is how broadly coaches they used to work with are positioned around the NFL, we show that . . . it doesn’t change the core finding of our study,” Rider told me by phone Wednesday, “which is that at the lower level, the position-coach level especially, the racial disparity in promotion rate is very, very strong. It hasn’t changed since the Rooney Rule was implemented. There is nothing . . . that changes the finding that white coaches are almost twice as likely to get promoted to the coordinator position as minority coaches are.
“We account for things like, ‘Were you ever on a Super Bowl staff? What was your team’s winning record?’ Now we’ve put in another bunch of performance [variables], yards allowed, yards gained . . . etc.,” Rider said. “But it doesn’t change [the findings].”
It all mimics findings in hiring practices by race in all jobs in this country, where black job applicants with the same qualities as their white counterparts are still significantly less likely to gain the same job.
“We didn’t start out wanting to study the NFL,” Rider said. “We wanted to study racial disparity, and the NFL is a great context to do it. It’s like other employers in a lot of ways. People tend to advance, we think, based on their performance. And what’s nice about the NFL is winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Performance indicator is very strong.”
So the question isn’t what to do with the Rooney Rule, but what to do with the institutions and people who struggle so mightily to adopt its sense of fairness.
One action would be for black football players, who make up roughly two-thirds of the league’s blood-guts-and-brain-matter labor class, to exercise their collective strength and demand their employers be as eager to hire men in coaching and managerial offices who look like them as they are in the locker rooms. If this is, in fact, some new era of athlete activism, NFL players should ride it beyond sporting a T-shirt with some slogan. They can steal a page from their brethren in the 1960s who refused to play in the AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans after they were refused restaurant service and cab rides because of the color of their skin. Their protest forced the game to be relocated to a more hospitable Houston.
Or legislators, who funnel taxpayers’ dollars to new stadium construction, could steal a page from what happened in Washington in the early 1960s, when the new D.C. Stadium prepared to host the local NFL team that at the time was the last all-white team in the league. The federal government told then-Washington owner George Preston Marshall that he would have to integrate his team if it was to play in a stadium funded by federal dollars. He relented.
This isn’t to say that there are any owners in the NFL today like Marshall, whose stance against diversity emboldened white supremacists to march in broad daylight around D.C. Stadium.
But as recent studies suggested, the collective efforts of the NFL’s current owners have created a disadvantage for those trying to walk in Dennis Green’s shoes. Picking up what he made a priority would be the best way to honor his spirit.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.