This is going to be an uncomfortable column. It should be uncomfortable to talk about this, because what’s happening in the NFL is not right: 70 percent minority players, 13 percent minority head coaches, 6 percent minority general managers, 3 percent minority owners. What is wrong with this picture? You’re good enough to play, but not to coach, manage or own.
Last season was a good year for the NFL—strong TV ratings, new great teams emerging, a new generation of quarterbacks coming to the fore. A good year for diversity, in some ways too. Two generations ago, black quarterbacks in the NFL were rare. But last year, the top four touchdown passers in the NFL (Lamar Jackson, Jameis Winston, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott) were black. The no-doubt MVP (Jackson) was a black quarterback, as was the no-doubt Super Bowl MVP (Patrick Mahomes). This comes after a decade in which four times the top four touchdown passers, the league MVP and the Super Bowl MVP were all white quarterbacks.
Eight years ago, the NFL had an all-white officiating crew for the Super Bowl. In the Chiefs’ Super Bowl 54 win, the eight-person crew had five African-American men.
I am not suggesting that we put minority quarterbacks and minority officials in positions they are not qualified to fill, just to address some sort of numbers game—or just to make us feel better about humanity. How many teams would want Mahomes or Jackson or Wilson or Prescott or Deshaun Watson to quarterback their teams right now? Thirty-two? It’d be close to that. Regarding the officials . . . Answer this question: Was the Super Bowl well officiated? Was there a big story coming out of the Super Bowl about officiating? There was not—unless you consider a ticky-tack offensive pass interference call on Niners tight end George Kittle a big story. He did push off, though it was mild, negating a big gain in the first half. Debate whether it should have been called, but he did it. Point is, the most diverse officiating crew in Super Bowl history had an anonymous day, which is the perfect day for an officiating crew.
Fast-forward now. So how did the NFL get to the point where only six of 64 top football people in the sport—the 32 head coaches and 32 GMs—are minorities?
Simple answer: The NFL got comfortable. The NFL trusted owners to do the right thing, year after year. The NFL worked diligently when the Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003 to be sure minority coaches got their shot, and the number of minority coaches increased from three in 2003 to seven in 2006 to eight in 2011, and then, after a valley, back to eight in 2017 and 2018. Now it’s fallen to four in 2019 and 2020. So is that a temporary trough? Or is it the new real?
“We don’t talk about it,” Vincent said. “We don’t like to talk about it.”
Vincent’s three reasons for the league going backward: “Self-preservation, nepotism, and agent monopoly. Those are the realities, when you look at what has stunted the numbers. What we’ve done is, through the years, we, myself included, have allowed the self-preservation to take over. People start guarding their turf, at different levels of the personnel side of department and different levels of the coaching. The coaching community. Then there’s been gamesmanship, manipulating policy. You start coming up with different titles, protecting people from moving. I’ll give you the assistant head coach job, I’ll pay you a couple more dollars. I’ll need you to be quiet. Now, I’m protecting you, you can’t go anyplace. Over time, that has evolved and we’ve allowed it.”
Nepotism’s a tough one. Life is about connections in all businesses. But most staffs in the NFL have a coach or coaches with connections. The Vikings have three assistant coaches with fathers on the staff. Pete Carroll’s two sons, Brennan and Nate, are Seahawks assistants. Bill Belichick has hired both sons, Steve and Brian, as Patriots assistants. Andy Reid’s defensive line coach with the Chiefs is son Britt. (I’m sure I’ve missed some relatives or in-laws here.) All of those teams—Minnesota, Seattle, New England, Kansas City—win. So I’m not saying what the coaches are doing is wrong. All I’m saying is it’s an advantage non-relatives do not have.
“Other people would like to bring on their brother-in-law, or their brother, or work with their father,” Vincent said. “But it becomes a barrier to entry, a barrier to mobility. It’s a fact that continues to grow. And now they share each other’s kids. You hire my buddy or you hire my kid’s son, you’re my nephew and because they grew up in the same tree, got the same agent . . . So it’s not that it’s unfair, but it’s a challenge. We’ve got to recognize all of those things and try to break those barriers down.”
I don’t see that one ending. Put yourself in the shoes of a head coach who maybe feels he’s short-shrifted his family with his very long coaching hours over the years, and now he’s had some success and built up some juice within an organization. Now he wants help his son in the family business, or help the son of those loyal to him on his staff. Is anyone going to stop him from making a family/friend hire or two? Likely not.
The point is, whether that’s right or justified or whatever, it is a form of jumping the line.