NFL improves racial diversity but lags in racial and gender equity in some team roles
The 2020 National Football League Racial and Gender Report Card, released Wednesday by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, shows that while the NFL continues to improve in racial diversity in certain categories, it continues to lag in both racial and gender equity in some key decision-making roles, especially at the team level.
When TIDES released the 2019 Report Card in October 2019, no one was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial reckoning and the presidential election that would dominate 2020. In March and April, the world was locked down in the early stages of the pandemic. In May and June, a social and political eruption compounded the already monumental year, furthered by a polarizing presidential campaign leading to November. Until this point, the words “social change” and “slow” have been considered inseparable. But in the span between the 2019 and 2020 NFL Racial and Gender Report Cards, we witnessed hard-fought change accelerated in a year.
Aimed at raising awareness and seeking to dismantle systemic racism, this national mobilization was joined and often led by sports. The largest mass demonstrations in American history included powerful protests joined by athletes, bold initiatives established by professional leagues and enormous financial pledges made by teams, leagues and athletes. Among the highlights was how the entire Jacksonville Jaguars organization marched on the local sheriff’s office during the protests of police brutality in June. Many people disapproved when Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time in 2016. Now, many sports fans support athlete activism against racism. Although promising, the sustainability of these efforts is not yet secure. We cannot be satisfied by the promise of change. It must be lived.
Sports has been a powerful change agent. When it lives up to its ideals, it enhances its platform. However, it can likewise be diminished when it does not live up to those ideals. The racial and gender report cards are one measure of that. Support of the leagues for player activism is another measure. The NFL obviously has a huge platform as a result of its historic, mass popularity with fans.
TIDES found that the NFL achieved a B+ for racial hiring practices, increasing significantly to 85.5%, 3.2 percentage points higher than last year’s score of 82.3%. However, its C, with 73.0%, for gender hiring practices was a 3 percentage point decrease from last year’s score. This gave the NFL a combined grade of a B-, with 79.2%, a slight decrease from last year’s 79.3%. It should be noted that this was negatively affected by the change this year to include a grade for the CEO/president and for team vice presidents. If not for that change, there would have been an even greater increase in 2020 for racial hiring. Part of the drop to 73.0 for gender hiring practices is attributable to the change described above. The same was true for the overall grade of 79.2.
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In spite of this, the NFL saw improvements in several racial categories since last year’s report card, such as increases from 10.9% to 13.9% for C-Suite executives, 12.8% to 13.7% for team vice presidents and 28.0% to 30.5% for league office management. However, under-representation of women and people of color in significant decision-making roles at the team level remains a persistent issue. For senior administration, the NFL scored 23.9%, compared to last year’s 24.4%. Professional administration scored 32.3%, compared to last year’s 35.9%. (The decrease in gender grades has been a trend in pro sports for several years.)
For the second consecutive year, the NFL had only four head coaches of color and only two general managers of color at the start of the season. This stands in stark contrast to the percentage of players of color on NFL rosters, which is 69.4%, and the record high of eight head coaches of color and six general managers of color only two years ago.
On a positive note, in January, the Cleveland Browns announced the hiring of Andrew Berry as general manager and executive vice president of football operations, pairing him with Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins as the only two general managers of color in the NFL. Similarly, the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons fired their head coaches and replaced them with Black interim coaches by Week 6 of the NFL season. Bill O’Brien was replaced by Romeo Crennel in Houston, and Dan Quinn was replaced by Raheem Morris in Atlanta. It is worth noting that the Morris-led Falcons are 4-3 after starting 0-5 under Quinn, and the Crennel-led Texans are 4-4 after starting 0-4 under O’Brien.
There is reason for optimism. Powerful anti-racist protests led by players during the racial reckoning, standard-setting hiring initiatives established by the league office and barrier-breaking hires in cities such as Washington, D.C., have paved a clear path to improvement for the NFL.
Notable in 2020 were two ground-breaking hires by the Washington Football Team. Jason Wright became the first Black team president in NFL history. Washington also hired Jennifer King as the first full-season Black female assistant coach in NFL history.
King’s hiring is a testament to the NFL’s annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum, led by Samantha Rapoport. Despite its being founded only four years ago, in 2017, a total of 118 women have already been hired through the program, including 15 who were hired by teams this season. This past year’s forum was held at the NFL scouting combine, just weeks before the pandemic forced a global shutdown. It is vital that the NFL finds a way to renew the forum for its fifth year in 2021, even if it is virtual.
The league office, led by the commissioner, was a bright spot in the report card and included two major hires of people of color. Late last year, the league hired Dasha Smith as chief people officer, and she was recently promoted to chief administration officer. Likewise, the league named Jonathan Beane as senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer.
While these new hires highlight the league office’s emphasis on improving diversity and inclusion, the challenge of getting buy-in at the team level has long persisted. A reevaluation and an overhaul of existing policies, including the Rooney Rule, were necessary.
One policy overhaul came in November 2020, when a proposal passed by NFL membership provided third-round compensatory draft pick rewards to teams that develop people of color and women candidates for primary football executive, general manager or head coach positions. If one of those people of color and/or women candidates moves to the position of primary football executive or head coach, a team would be compensated with a future third-round draft pick.
For the Rooney Rule, clubs will now be required to interview at least two external candidates of color for head coach vacancies, at least one candidate of color for any of the three coordinator vacancies and at least one external candidate of color for a senior football operations or general manager position. Additionally, for the first time, the Rooney Rule will apply to a range of executive positions, as clubs must include candidates of color and/or female applicants in the interview processes for senior-level front-office positions such as club president and senior executives in communications, finance, human resources, legal, football operations, sales, marketing, sponsorship, information technology and security.
It is also worth noting that the NFL updated its media policy in 2020, leading to more visibility and increased opportunities for advancement for assistant coaches of color. The new policy states that through their public relations departments, clubs must provide regular and reasonable access to assistant coaches — coordinators/assistant head coaches and all primary position coaches — for media interviews that serve the best interests of the club and league.
These changes have brought the Rooney Rule a long way since its adoption in 2003, when it required teams to interview at least one candidate of color for head-coaching positions. Still, it’s apparent that these modifications are not a total cure. As top NFL executive Troy Vincent said in a Forbes interview in 2019, “diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.”
Between the Rooney Rule and several developmental programs, it’s no longer a question if adequate procedures designed to promote the upward mobility of candidates of color exist. Such programs include the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship Program established in 1987, the Fritz Pollard Alliance Partnership formed in 2003, the Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship created in 2015 and the Quarterback Coaching Summit first held in 2018.
Given that the talent pool of qualified and diverse candidates exists, maybe it is time for everyone to recognize that having a sufficient talent pool of qualified candidates of color might never have been the problem.
Perhaps the root of the problem was never on the bottom and was, rather, at the top. Hopefully, the changes implemented this year get us there at the team level and at the top.
Both Troy Vincent and Jonathan Beane shared that their belief that this comprehensive approach will lead to sustained real change. Beane told me: “The focus on head coaches, general managers and ownership gets the most attention, but it is very important to know that this effort to increase diversity and inclusion applies to all areas of the league: our employees, the executive leadership team, the clubs and the commissioner. In order for us to ensure that we are driving diversity, equity and inclusion in a sustainable way throughout the NFL, we have developed a strategic plan, are focusing on data so we can identify where the opportunities are, and to ensure that we have a welcoming environment where all can be their authentic selves. We want to operationalize this work throughout the entire organization so we can continue to grow and thrive as the best professional sports organization in the world.”
We saw that change can be real and swift after player activism emerged this year with the NFL players’ impassioned video message to the league and the commissioner. I am convinced that commissioner Roger Goodell heard that message and was changed by it. When player activism turns to the hiring process, I am confident that agenda will be pushed even further to the forefront.
I am hopeful for what changes will be made in the coming year.
A.J. Forbes and Kyle Richardson made significant contributions to this column.