Mike Tomlin, the head coach of the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers, Photo by @SteelCityHobbies
Mike Tomlin, the head coach of the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers, Photo by @SteelCityHobbies

The NFL once again finds itself in a firestorm as it navigates through a lawsuit opened up by Brian Flores, the ex-coach of the Miami Dolphins who was unceremoniously fired due to tensions between the ownership and the coach.

Flores, while interviewing for an open coaching position with the New York Giants, discovered that a decision was already made, prior to the process completion.  Flores then realized he had become a pawn in a disingenuous process with team management paying lip service to the Rooney Rule. For such a great institution that has contributed greatly to the economic growth of many African Americans, why doesn’t the NFL get diversity right? Or is this indicative of the executive corporate culture in general, if we were to take a look at the number of African Americans in the fortune 500 companies?

Keeping the spotlight on the NFL, the majority of players are African American, but at the executive level; in the behind-the-scenes backrooms where the rules are made, the landscape is still unacceptably alabaster. That was one of the reasons for the Rooney Rule, a 2003 policy that required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for its open head coach jobs. Years later, the policy was expanded to other top-level front office jobs, requiring teams to interview at least two external minority candidates. And yet here we are in 2022, and the higher management of the NFL still inveighs against diversity at the upper reaches of their organization.

NFL Washington Commanders taking a knee, Photo by Keith Allison

It does not have to be this way. Notwithstanding the lawsuit, football is having an incredible media moment right now. In the run-up to the post-season, just over a week ago, the Kansas City Chiefs vs. Buffalo Bills nail-biter delivered the best ratings for an NFL Divisional Playoff game in five years. Further, the Cincinnati Bengals vs. Chiefs game, which peaked at over 60 million viewers, was the most-watched NFL Conference Championship Playoff game in three years. And then came the bad publicity; the troubles. The continued inability of the league to oversee racial equity in its upper management is a source of great shame in a season that was otherwise stellar and profitable.

In the class action lawsuit brought by former NFL coach, Brian Flores, against the NFL at the start of Black History Month, he called the Rooney Rule a “well-intentioned failure.” It is difficult, looking at the recent history of the NFL, to argue against that assessment of the policy. For a league that pledged, in 2019, a quarter of a billion dollars to combat systemic racism, it is showing quite a bit of its own. And although the NFL used Weeks 17 and 18 of the 2021-22 regular season to promote “Inspire Change,” the league’s aspirational social justice campaign, there has been little to be seen on inspiration, and more of the stubborn fixity of an organization that refuses to change.

The metrics don’t lie, of the big four professional sports leagues in North America, only the NBA has a higher percentage of African American players. As of 2020, 70 percent of the players in the NFL league’s 32 teams are African American men, but none, not even one of the 32 owners are African American. There are seven NFL teams who have never had a Black head coach, and earlier last month, the Houston Texans organization fired David Culley, an African American head coach with more than 45-years of collegiate and professional coaching experience, after a single season. “Many of them no longer believe the hiring landscape will ever change because club owners, through their actions, have made something resoundingly clear: Only white is right,” wrote Jason Reid about player morale on January, 14, 2022.  Up until then, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin, was the last African American head coach standing in a league dominated by African American men.

NFL player Terry McLaurin of the Washington Commanders taking a knee, Photo courtesy of All-Pro-Reels
NFL player Terry McLaurin of the Washington Commanders taking a knee, Photo courtesy of All-Pro-Reels

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