Let’s examine a hypothetical: you’re an NFL owner looking to hire your next head coach.
There are three candidates in front of you.

Option A: This choice has experience as a special teams coordinator in college. He made it to the big leagues as a special teams assistant before a promotion added WR coach to his title.

Option B: This option has been the offensive coordinator for the league’s best offense two years running. He developed arguably the best quarterback in the league and has a Super Bowl victory under his belt.

Option C: This coach turned two failing college programs into big threats. His only NFL experience was as an assistant offensive line coach for one season.

Which option would you choose for a head coach?

Most of you may be thinking of Option B. If you’re not, that’s probably why you don’t run an NFL team.

But what if I told you Option B is the only one that was not hired as a head coach? In order, the coaches above are Joe Judge, Eric Bieniemy, and Matt Rhule. The first and last options were recently hired by the Giants and Panthers, respectively, while Bieniemy, despite having Reid’s ringing endorsement, has gone through seven head coach interviews to no avail.

Super Bowl win boosts Andy Reid and Chiefs assistant coaches
Photo: Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The problem with Bieniemy is not that “Reid is the real OC,” it’s not that “Mahomes is just that talented,” and it’s certainly not that he isn’t qualified.

The problem with Eric Bieniemy is that he is a black man in a racist league.

The NFL has a racism problem. If it didn’t the league would not have approved an immediate rule change this week, expanding the Rooney Rule to require at least two minority candidates be interviewed for head coaching positions, and at least one minority-candidate interview for any coordinator-level position. The amendment includes similar requirements for General Manager and Senior Football Operations roles, as well as other senior-level positions. 

The expansive measures are aimed at addressing the NFL’s worrisome decline in diversity within coaching systems. This season will mark the lowest number of minority head coaches (3) since 2003 when the Rooney Rule was instituted. The rule’s initial impact saw a Tony Dungy/Lovie Smith Super Bowl matchup just four years after its conception, the first and only all-black head coaching matchup in Super Bowl history.

Lovie Smith is on his way to rebuilding Illinois football
Photo: David Duprey/AP Photo

Still, teams have navigated around the Rooney Rule due to a notorious lack of enforcement, interviewing minority-candidates without taking them seriously. This example is just one of a disturbing pattern of team executives using black candidates to check a box before hiring their white counterparts. 

In a league with 70% black athletes, the issue might seem to be limited to coaching. However, a closer look reveals that racism runs deeper within the NFL than simply head coaching.

Per The Undefeated, 2019 was dubbed The Year of the Black Quarterback, and with good reason. 8 of the 32 signal-callers were black, the first overall pick of the draft was a black quarterback, and, you guessed it, a black quarterback boasted the highest salary in the league. 

The celebration ends there, as another offseason comes and goes without a black coaching hire. Aside from Ron Rivera, every new head coach in 2020 is white.

Of the 19 most recent head coaching hires, only two have been black men. Despite the vast majority of players being black, few such players have been elevated to the position of head coach.

Certainly there is a case to be made that most NFL head coaches were never players. According to FiveThirtyEight, a majority of head coaches in the league have never played professional football, black or white. 

Furthermore, the discrepancy between players and coaches is not limited to football. Basketball, too, has a majority of black athletes despite less than a quarter of its coaches being black. In both sports, this discrepancy can be explained away by the fact that coaches, regardless of race, largely lack playing experience. Yet in hockey and baseball this disparity between players and coaches disappears.

The NHL and MLB are almost exclusively composed of coaches/managers with previous playing experience. Importantly, they are also composed of predominantly white athletes. Only in sports where whiteness dominates the athlete demographic do we see a player-to-coach pipeline manifest. Meanwhile, in sports where black athletes make up the majority of players, those players struggle to become coaches.

If NFL head coaches are not being pulled from a sample of former players, where are they coming from? Most commonly, head coaches hail from coordinator positions, head coaching jobs in college football, or being a part of an elite coaching tree. 

Since 2009, 40% of head coaching hires have been offensive coordinators. That same demographic? 91% white. Meanwhile at the college level, just 13 of the 128 head coaches leading Football Bowl Subdivision teams in college are black.

Additionally, despite the myth of meritocracy, plenty of head coaches are pulled from coaching trees. Between Andy Reid, Bill Belichik, and Mike Shanahan, about 40% of head coaches can be traced back to three coaching trees. Tony Dungy, on the other hand, is responsible for five of the most recent black head coach hirings. When a small pool of powerful white men influences so much of the coaching landscape, it should be no surprise that diversity is lacking. 

The problem is not simply coaching. As evident in the newly expanded version of the Rooney Rule, nearly every facet of the NFL is short on diversity. Just 9% of league office employees are black, only two principal owners — Shahid Khan of the Jaguars and Kim Pegula of the Bills — are not white, and black college players are graduating with a degree at half the rate of their white teammates. 

Room for political subversion also sheds light on the NFL’s racism problem. In the NBA, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, and others donned “I can’t breathe” shirts honoring Eric Gardner, a victim of racist police brutality. Though not an effusive thumbs up, their action was met with “respect” from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. 

Meanwhile, NFL ownership has effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick after his peaceful protest against such brutality despite 95% of players supporting his reinstatement. Jerry Jones has set up a paywall against athletes protesting during the national anthem. Even fans are burning the jerseys of players who dare to stand in solidarity with black folks protesting state violence and police brutality. According to a survey by The Undefeated, 59% of black NFL fans strongly support players kneeling during the anthem, while just 24% of white NFL fans do. Regarding the inverse, a heaping 47% of white fans strongly oppose players kneeling during the anthem, while just 7% of black fans do. 

White fans, players, and owners alike have conflated protesting during the national anthem with protesting against the national anthem. Whether as an intentional act to disparage outspoken black men or as a function of implicit racial bias, white folks’ discourse surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protests demonstrates the sad state of the NFL as a deeply racist institution.

Kaepernick deal could close NFL's kneeling chapter
Photo: Dennis Romero/NBC News

(Before you tell me Kaepernick is a bad quarterback, let me remind you that Mike Glennon had a starting job as recently as 2018. Kaep’s INT rate (29.4%) is better than Philip Rivers (33%) or Drew Brees (30.2%), and he was 5 yards shy of a Super Bowl victory. He’s no Dan Marino, but I will be damned if he doesn’t deserve a spot on an NFL roster.)

Some will retort that “so what, athletes have a great life.” Sure, they are millionaires paid to play a game once a week. But the social impact of how black men are treated in football expands far beyond the field of play.

The United States was built on the labor of enslaved black people. The history of race in America has been dominated by the narrative of white supremacy, with white men maintaining positions of power whenever and wherever possible. Such racial hegemony was achieved through the systemic demonization of black men, who have been stereotyped as hyper-masculine, violent, and less intelligent than whites as long as this nation has existed.

Through football, black men are further patronized into this stereotype. Most competitive college football programs graduate about half of their black athletes, whereas white athletes tend to have a near-100% graduation rate. By not academically investing in its black athletes, the NCAA is projecting an aura of intellectual inferiority that reinforces the hyper-athletic stereotype of black men. Additionally, according to a USC study, non-athlete black men at Big Ten schools are consistently mistaken for athletes, and often told “congrats!” after their school wins a game that weekend. These students report feeling “culture of low expectations” wherein most “peers and professors assumed [black male non-athletes] played sports and were only marginally interested in academics.”

While the men taking the field are paid handsomely, the perception that black men are unintelligent has consistently done serious social and psychological harm throughout society and upholds the “halo of white intellectual superiority among athletes.”

Today these same arguments against black intellectualism are utilized to bar black men from coaching. Facing an uphill battle, it seems Brian Flores and the company must outperform their white coworkers tenfold to even be considered for an interview. Eric Bieniemy has the prestige of the Reid coaching tree on his resume, but despite succeeding and outperforming Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson, he has yet to land a head coaching gig.

Cohen & Steers Appoints Dasha Smith to Board of Directors
Photo: PRNewsfoto/Cohen & Steers

The expanded Rooney Rule is an example of the NFL’s limp efforts to reverse a longstanding tradition of discrimination that has whitewashed front offices, coaching staffs, and graduating classes alike. On the surface, steps like hiring Dasha Smith (right) as the chief people officer and executive vice president of the league have served to move the NFL out of the stone age. Already, she has brought mogul Jay-Z and Roc Nation on to help disentangle the league from the American tradition of white supremacy. Still, much of the work being done only has a shallow impact, falling short of the sweeping reform necessary to reverse the racial disparity in football.

It has been said before, but there is much work to be done. Too many overqualified minority candidates continue to be overlooked, not just in football but throughout society. The NFL’s racism problem is America’s racism problem. 

The NFL is a powerful rudder, helping steer America’s social consciousness. Goodell and the owners have demonstrated an embarrassing lack of leadership in diversifying the league, choosing instead to propagate the same biases that have plagued America since its inception.

Until leadership is overhauled, the NFL will continue to lambast in the politics that make America a failed project.

Featured Image: Aric Jenkins/TIME
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