I recently found myself listening to a conversation I feel like I’ve had many times before. This month, Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute hosted a plenary discussion with some of the brightest minds in football. Academics, including university presidents and professors, and former NFL general managers, among others, had gathered remotely to debate a well-worn topic. It was a simple question, one many of us have asked and tried to answer at dinner tables or on email threads. What does the Black coach have to do to get hired in the NFL?
“To see that the progress has literally screeched to a halt is very disheartening,” Ray Anderson, athletic director at Arizona State, said during the panel. Anderson was an agent earlier in his career, representing Denny Green, Marvin Lewis, and Herm Edwards. He was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for his clients and other Black coaches, so he played a role in crafting the Rooney Rule, the 2003 league policy enacted to ensure nonwhite candidates received interviews for head-coach and coordinator openings. At the time, Anderson believed those efforts would lead to meaningful change. “And here now, 18 years since, the numbers don’t lie,” he said. His voice carried a familiar weariness. “Most of these interviews seem to be token efforts,” he continued. He called for accountability from the NFL and preached intentionality in creating more effective policies to bring down the wall between Black and white coaches.
“Those efforts,” he said, “have fallen on deaf ears.”
Other panel members shared that sentiment. Jim Rooney, son of Dan Rooney, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and namesake of the Rooney Rule, said his father’s landmark policy has become “embarrassing.”
“It’s become a shield for others,” said Rooney. “My father did a good job with this, and folks who will remain nameless get to hide behind his good work. It’s difficult to watch.”
Many others have watched this tired battle for decades. Diplomacy no longer feels like an option against the NFL ownership’s intransigence. Doug Williams, a Washington Football Team executive and the first Black quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl, followed Anderson’s remarks. He said nothing would come from the annual tirades about workplace racism in football until it’s possible to “sit the owners down and talk to them, face-to-face, and get a true reaction.” Ownership, he stressed, bears the responsibility but too often offers only excuses. “There’s no such thing as a pipeline when the valve hasn’t been opened.”
Anderson agreed. “At the end of the day,” he said, “the owners will determine what type of progress we make. They are on the hook for this.”
The urgency of their conversation provides useful insight when considering the NFL’s recent hiring spree. Can you blame them for their rebukes, their aggrieved statements about the lack of Black upward mobility across the sport? Team after team lined up to throw coins at uninspiring white candidates. Nick Sirianni was hired for the head job in Philadelphia after three seasons as offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. Dan Campbell was hired in Detroit after five seasons as tight ends coach in New Orleans. Brandon Staley got the Los Angeles Chargers job after one season as defensive coordinator with the Rams.
For the past few seasons, I have noticed a growing rumble, a righteous discord among Black coaches and advocates. Almost every coach I speak to, at every level of the game, seethes with similar anger. Yet another season has passed, and the hopelessness they feel in their profession has not subsided. There remains a blatant, collective refusal by the NFL to adequately consider Black folks to run their billion-dollar franchises or be the head coach at the highest level of America’s most sacred sport.
That truth eats away at folks like Esé Ighedosa, an attorney and the president of the House of Athlete, a wellness company founded by former NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall that prioritizes athletes’ health and well-being. Ighedosa previously worked in the league front office and then as an associate counsel with the Carolina Panthers and is considered by many advocates to be a new and powerful voice in the ongoing struggle for workplace equity. She’s worked inside the NFL and understands how it operates. “You’re comfortable with players when they come to your house or play with your children, but not when they run your organization,” she said on the panel. “We can’t keep excusing it. We must call this out.”
Like many advocating for change, Ighedosa puts the onus directly on the league to compel ownership to enact necessary advancements. But she acknowledges why this has been a futile strategy. “The league and the owners work together,” she said. “The league front office is merely a management company.” Still, she feels like there are few options outside of the league issuing a mandate. Her sunny outlook faded, she sighed before an equally fatigued crew.
“I don’t even know if the fans care.”
The NFL’s own annual occupational mobility data has detailed a yearslong problem with its hiring practices, one that can be traced directly to the team owners’ consistent refusal to hire nonwhite candidates. Jim Caldwell, former Detroit Lions head coach, recently said owners still call members of the press to ask whom they should interview for their job openings. “Ownership still is not that familiar with folks that aren’t right within their circle,” said Caldwell.
A new study from researchers at Arizona State and the University of Central Florida recently found that since the adoption of the Rooney Rule in 2003 through the 2020 season, only 18.3 percent of the hires for 115 head-coaching vacancies went to Black candidates. Two vacancies went to the same Latino candidate, Ron Rivera. Only 26.9 percent of 208 coaches hired as defensive coordinators were Black. Only 8.7 percent of the 242 offensive coordinators were Black, just 21 men in 18 seasons. Between 2017 and 2018, there were 33 offensive coordinators hired by league clubs, all of whom were white. Over the past four NFL hiring cycles, only three of 27 vacant coaching positions were filled by a Black candidate.
“When you look at the data, there isn’t much progress,” said Rachel Lofton, a coauthor of the study and project coordinator at Arizona State who analyzes NFL hiring data. “It’s going to be white people in power that’s going to be the change-makers. They need to keep their peers accountable. Black coaches know they’re great candidates. Now, we need to convince the people in power.”
The problem is, they’re not listening. The most recent hiring cycle was a blueprint for an irreparably failed system. After last year’s Super Bowl, the NFL conducted an internal “autopsy” of its hiring processes, relying on decades of occupational mobility data and interviews with coaches, advocates, and decision-makers, and concluded that the league’s hiring processes had failed. Private meetings were held at the draft combine and Senior Bowl and men yelled for something to change. Commissioner Roger Goodell attended some of those meetings and promised enhanced vigilance and stronger action when it came to hiring practices. But another season ended and nothing changed, leaving some people wondering whether progress is even possible.
“I think many of us who worked on this issue a while, we were stunned by it, if not downright pissed off,” Rod Graves told me recently, referring to the most recent hiring cycle. Graves is the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy organization named after the NFL’s first Black head coach. “I feel like I’m in the locker room right after the game. I don’t know what the game plan is. We are still forming it as we speak, but I know we have to take a different approach. And we won’t get anywhere if we don’t focus on the owners.”
Of course, the coaches know this, too. Marcus Brady, the new offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts who was promoted from quarterbacks coach, told me that “these issues should be gone by now.” Former head coach Hue Jackson said, “At some point in time, you’re going to get tired of being tired. You’re going to get tired of having these same conversations about the same thing and do something about it. What do we want to do?” He explained that Black coaches bear a professional cost by being involved in the fight for opportunity. “Your value plummets, people look at you differently. You get blackballed, guys get afraid. I hate to say it, they know that too. They know what’s on the other side of it for you if you get too loud. People start to shut you up, and they shut you up in different ways that affect your life.”
Gary Smith once wrote that “a man’s born into crazy.” Football presents a kind of chaos for the Black body, a sport created for white college students in the Northeast that evolved into an ideology, a modern, ingrained Americanized version of “muscular Christianity,” an idea so dominant in segregationist society that Black citizens were allowed to vote in Alabama before they could play for the state’s flagship college football team. Enduring this racism, fighting for it to be expunged from the playing field, and advocating for Black folks to have a seat at the table are part of an eternal struggle—and will be until the existing white supremacist power structure relinquishes its control. Black folks will always be victims of systems whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. And the perpetuation of that reality only yields lies to those wishing to upend it. Toni Morrison described racism as a science of distractions—“it keeps you from doing your work”; it forces us to disprove the malice leveled against us and our bodies. Is this not the case in football?
There always seems to be a reason as to why Black folks cannot get a head-coaching job in the NFL. Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy didn’t interview well. Tampa Bay coordinators Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich were too successful this season, so teams didn’t have enough time to interview them. New York Giants wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert interviewed well, just not better than the son of the Minnesota offensive coordinator who retired to make the position open. This was the novelty of this recent hiring cycle. The paucity of Black coaches is not because they’ve underachieved—it’s because they cannot outperform racism.
There must always be a reason. Otherwise, the great lie that Black folks cannot be the marquee minds of a white man’s league would be exposed. Instead, the deception allows the league’s gatekeepers to proclaim that they care about diversity without having to actually force any progress. The truth is, they do not want us—not our talent, not our brains, just our bodies. We are useless as leaders of men, as tacticians; we are good only as crash dummies, as the faces of the football phalanx that makes white men rich.
Jim Crow laws originated in the South in Democrat-run statehouses in the 19th and 20th centuries. The laws were predicated on plunder, their intent to disenfranchise Black folks to ensure they’d never make political or economic advances during Reconstruction. Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of this in his collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power. “What this country really fears is Black respectability, Good Negro Government. It applauds, even celebrates, Good Negro Government in the unthreatening abstract—The Cosby Show, for instance,” he wrote. “But when it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in.”
The legacy of Jim Crow lives on in so many American institutions, including the sporting community. In 1961, during an exhibition game in Roanoke, Virginia, the NFL failed to prevent Jim Crow seating, even after local NAACP chapters threatened lawsuits. When players walked into the arena, they saw white fans sitting in the seats while Black fans watched from behind fences. In his autobiography, Lenny Moore, a player from the game, wrote, “I had to reach through the chain-link fence in order to shake their hands.” He continued, “No image had ever made me realize, with such force, just what blacks have been up against all through American history: We have always been on the outside looking in.”
What exactly has changed since? Black folks found their way onto the playing field but were slow to make it to the sidelines. In more than 100 years of the NFL’s existence, only 21 Black head coaches have led teams. In one 64-year span, not a single Black coach was hired. The current coaching pool includes some of the greatest Black talent since the advent of the Rooney Rule, yet the last calendar year shows the worst year-over-year numbers for Black coaches in the history of the sport. The only Black coach to get hired for one of the seven available head-coaching vacancies—an unusually high number—was David Culley, his first head-coaching job after waiting 27 years for the phone call saying he was good enough. It is a deep irony that his first job will be for the Houston Texans, the worst organization in the league.
The NFL has used the past year of racial reckoning to preach about a very specific type of unity, punched up by decorative messaging and paraded in Super Bowl advertisements and slogans, promising to solve racism through defanged initiatives. The league has pledged its massive commercial and cultural might to beat back racism, while its fans cheer on the progress. Yet, in reality, the NFL has merely shown an appreciation for empty platitudes that sound nice but don’t do anything: publicly positing an attitude of radical change while preserving the same white patriarchy that has left generations of Black coaches without the same chances as their white counterparts. “Unity” isn’t possible in professional football because the people keeping the sport powerful do not yearn for it in the same way a small bloc of Americans do. “Unity” is simply a byword designed to obscure the pernicious effects of football’s racist system.
This economic oppression of Black coaching talent makes the NFL’s position perfectly clear: They do not want us. They do not think we are smart enough, cunning enough, mighty enough to lead the sanctified sidelines of the real great American pastime. Black folks are fierce competitors, yes. Athletic dynamos, of course. We’ve even been called pristine passers too, though it’s taken a while. But head coaching in the National Football League? It is starting to become clear that Black folks need not apply.
To think, after all of these years of progress being preached, not much has been altered except the names being disenfranchised. We have made it out of the basement of despair, only to remain on the first floor, far from a seat at the table. I think back to a photograph shared by Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum. A Black man stares at a sign on a chain-link fence. The sign points to a succinct evil, a nod to the truth barring Black folks from long-sought after positions in both football and beyond.
“Help Wanted. White Only.”