Looking the Part - Coaching, Talent, and Race

I'm a fan of challenging those colloquialisms and expressions that we've grown accustomed to hearing and in many cases using. It's a new year and there is a serious danger in looking at anything in the same "old" way. As many of you know I'm the proud co-host of a sports category blog - DISH Happens. We tackle sports issues from a coaching and fan perspective (you can guess who gives the fan expertise). In the National Football League (NFL), the Monday after the last regular season game is historically known as "Black Monday". This term was coined because that's the day many coaches get fired. Okay, it is what it is. Sports fans who were disappointed with their team's performance may cheer on this day. Firing of a coach signals hope for a brighter season tomorrow... maybe?
This season's "Black Monday" brought on new conversations about race and sports leadership. Here's this NFL season's Black Monday (and a couple of early bird) firings:
  1. Arizona Cardinals - Steve Wilks - 1 season - (3-13)
  2. Cincinnati Bengals - Marvin Lewis - 16 seasons - (6-10)
  3. Cleveland Browns - Hue Jackson - 3 seasons - (7-8-1)
  4. Denver Broncos - Vance Joseph - 2 seasons - (6-10)
  5. Green Bay Packers - Mike McCarthy - 13 seasons - (6-9-1)
  6. Miami Dolphins - Adam Gase - 3 seasons - (7-9)
  7. New York Jets - Todd Bowles - 4 seasons - (4-12)
  8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Dirk Koetter - 3 seasons - (5-11)
The NFL has 32 total teams. Twenty-five percent (yes 25%) of their leadership was fired on the last day of 2018. The number of firings is not unusual for the NFL. The disproportionate number of firings of African American coaches is currently standing at 5 of the 8 - that's the shocker (in bold above).
There's a long history of conversations about the racial diversity of most teams not in any way matching the racial diversity of the players. According to TIDES (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport), the most recent numbers indicated:
  • African American Players: 69.2% (2017; slight increase over prior season)
  • African American Head Coaches: 8 (2018 season)
  • African American Coordinators: 13 (2017; decline over prior season)
  • African American Assistant Coaches: 31.3% (2017; slight decline over prior season)
  • African American General Managers: 6 (2017; however at least one departed by 2018)
  • African American CEO/Presidents: 0 (2017; that's also 0 for all people of color and women)
Surprisingly the NFL had its first African American Head Coach in 1920 - Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard. Who by the way was one of the first African American players in league history. The numbers started out trailblazing. And somehow things started looking more like the norm for the time. The 2nd African American coach (Art Shell with the Raiders) came in 1989 (no typo, that's 69 years later).
How does this happen?
While sports attracts talent at the athlete level from all walks of life, the leadership of that talent has reflected societal norms instead of the shifts toward greater diversity and inclusion seen across large revenue industries. The NFL isn't looking the part when you look at the numbers. Does this mean the NFL is missing great talent? Probably, but not just African American talent - the lack of diversity is often times an outcome of a larger problem in talent acquisition and the process for identifying and valuing talent.
There's no one person to blame and there's everyone to blame.
I don't like playing the blame game so I won't. I will play the "Where Do We Go From Here" game. And that's where the conversation in my blog picks up - Looking the Part. I hate the phrase because there is an underlying, and in most cases accepted disenfranchised model of what and who "the part" belongs to. It begs the question just as so many asked why there were so few African American Quarterbacks in the 1980s. Did we all unknowingly accept that leadership positions in professional football were not African Americans, people of color, or even women? How did we get here? And where do we go from here? And then there's the most pivotal question - who is making the decisions?
Let's revisit the numbers above. As we look higher up the food chain of leadership in the NFL, women and people of color are noticeably absent. Does this mean if more POC are hired, it would translate to more POC hirings? That's not true, but not entirely untrue. When your decision-makers are more diverse in their own backgrounds, it should offer a new lens by which decisions are made. Progress rests with looking at "old" problems in new ways.
I'm reminded of a common story that created an uncommon ending with one of my good friends Damon Allen. Damon Allen was a rising star Quarterback in high school and college. He had dreams of being a QB in the NFL. His brother - Marcus Allen was beginning to trailblaze his hall of fame legendary career already in the NFL as a Running Back. There was one problem, Damon was told by every single NFL team that showed interest in him that he would be converted to another position. Damon was faced with a choice, convert and be something else, or good bye NFL. Here's where the common scenario facing an African American QB prospect in the mid 80's took an uncommon turn. Damon elected to pursue his dream of being a professional Quarter Back in the Canadian Football league. Twenty-three years later and 4 Grey Cup Championships (accomplished with 4 different teams) Damon Allen cemented his legacy as one of the greatest QBs to play in the CFL. Did the NFL get it wrong? Well certainly Damon Allen proved to be a legendary QB. What could he have done in the NFL? That question can only be debated.
The common problem and theme leading up to the 80s and beyond - "The Part" was not considered an African American position. Yes societal deficiencies and racial biases played a huge part.
The reality, perception took the lead over talent.
Damon wasn't the only person's talent being misperceived. The norm was wrong and it continues to make an impact on today's opportunities for people of color in player personnel, coaching, and leadership roles in the front office.
Fast forward to Black Monday and the NFL's highest number of African American Head Coaches was cut to 3 by the time the ball dropped for 2019. That feels like more than a step back, that's putting the car in reverse and slamming on the accelerator. Will the new hirings for the 2019 change the numbers? The NFL has hiring practices in place that will make the chances of improving the currently 3 African American Head Coaches high. The Rooney Rule implemented a diversity & inclusion practice in the hiring process in positions of leadership (at all levels). Many journalists, analysts, and sports junkies have been asking
has the Rooney Rule been ineffective?
I'll step out and say it has not been ineffective - it's just not enough. I don't care if you're talking about the NFL or a Fortune 100 technology company, the improvement of Diversity & Inclusion cannot solely rest on one hiring practice of including a POC or woman candidate in the interview. Forbes published a fantastic piece, "NFL Teams Keep Firing Black Head Coaches, But That's Not The Problem". Sports writer Terence Moore of SportsMoney cites the lack of diversity in decision-making roles as playing a key factor in the outcomes we see in coaching and the front office.
There's a danger in "Looking the Part" on all sides. At the beginning of the 2018 NFL season, the progress of People of Color Head Coaches seemed to be increasing. At the end, the reality of "Looking" and not "Being" the part of a forward-moving organization changed. The infrastructure must always support a shift in operations. Hence, the Rooney Rule, while vital in the progress of increasing people of color and women, cannot be the only thing. And to be fair, the NFL has a Minority Coaching Fellowship that is designed to feed the coaching pipeline with new talent and build new coaching relationships. Additionally, the Fritz Pollard Alliance works closely with the NFL on its minority hiring practices. There's mechanisms in place, but they've not reached the desired outcomes on the field and in the board rooms yet.
Here's what I know, I've never played a down of professional football, but I've studied talent plus diversity & inclusion for years. Solutions to improve diversity are complex and they must be implemented and accepted at every level in the organization to be effective. The NFL is not perfect - no organization is. To move the chains in diversity & inclusion at hiring and leadership, it's everyone's responsibility. It's okay to fire African American coaches; which means it must be okay to hire African American coaches. And while journalists, analysts, and many sports enthusiasts have raised these questions, John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance has not sounded the alarm. Wooten is on record for equating the firings as being football decisions; touting a "win or go home" philosophy.
From my perspective, we have to get to the point that we don't equate a lack of coaching diversity with a lack of minority and women talent. The danger of that mentality without an intervention, is that the way it looks will cement the way it remains. Let's talk about this. I want to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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