Dear NFL Owners,
I’m writing to you today because I have a great love for the National Football League, just as you do, and want to see it be the best it can be. And I believe our league has a problem that only you can fix. We are not putting the best product possible out on the field. We have an exciting game and great competition. We will have a fantastic Super Bowl that will cap off a season where we overcame great adversity due to this pandemic. The NFL has a lot of things to be proud of, but we are not giving our fans, or our players, the best possible game. We are cheating our fans and we are cheating ourselves. And you are the only people who can change this.
The problem is we are not utilizing all of our resources because we aren’t truly embracing minority hiring in every aspect of our game. Now I know there are many people who disagree with this statement. They would say, “Every owner is trying to win and therefore you will always hire the best people.” But if you take a look at the hiring landscape of the last four years you will certainly come to the conclusion that is not true. And please understand this is not about one individual (Eric Bieniemy). It’s not about whether we have two Black general managers or four. It is about the mindset of finding quality leadership and utilizing ALL the talent available to the NFL. This is not a new problem and it’s one that you have fixed before. It has just taken a little work on your parts.
In the 1930s and 1940s, in your grandfathers’ generation, we had great competition and many great players. The assumption was that the NFL was the best football fans could see, and we were putting the absolute best product on the field. But we weren’t. African American players were excluded from the game and no one thought it was detrimental to the product. In 1946 however, Dan Reeves, owner of the Los Angeles Rams, made a very bold move. He started signing African American players. The Cleveland Browns were playing in the All-America Football Conference at the time and their owner, Arthur McBride, did the same thing. When the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, they immediately dominated the league and made it to six straight championship games, aided by a number of African American stars. This pointed out to everyone that we could make our football better by utilizing all of the talent pool available. Your grandfathers’ generation began to get it right and the NFL was better for it.
In the 1970s, while we had seen plenty of minority players enter the league, your scouts still didn’t grasp the fact that Black players could play QB well enough to thrive in the NFL. Despite the fact that many African Americans were excelling at the quarterback position in college, opportunities to play quarterback in the NFL were rare. Talented quarterbacks like Eldridge Dickey were drafted and switched to other positions. Others, like Chuck Ealey, who led the University of Toledo to great success and never lost a game in his three-year college career, weren’t drafted at all and had to go to Canada to continue to play quarterback. This persisted even into the 90s when Heisman trophy winner Charlie Ward simply chose another sport to excel in rather than fight an uphill battle against negative stereotypes.
In 1978 Doug Williams, an African American who would later quarterback Washington to a Super Bowl championship, was the first quarterback selected in the draft that year. Had the NFL finally turned the corner in utilizing all the talent and putting the best players on the field? No! There were 13 other quarterbacks drafted that year, all of them white. Warren Moon was not one of those selected, despite having been the PAC-8 Player of the Year and MVP of the Rose Bowl. He signed in Canada and led the Edmonton Eskimos to five Grey Cup titles before finally getting to sign an NFL contract. Hindsight tells us that Doug Williams and Warren Moon were the best QBs of that class. But Moon, an eventual Hall of Famer, was somehow overlooked, even though every franchise was trying to win and trying to put the best players on the field.
The owners eventually took on this problem. While Black QBs still face unique challenges, there is a different mindset for coaches and scouts. Lamar Jackson did not switch positions. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson didn’t have to go to Canada to prove themselves and Russell Wilson is playing quarterback for the Seahawks, not second base for the Yankees. And the NFL is much better off because of it.
In the 1980s, when some of your dads owned the teams, the topic of fairness, equality, and putting the best product on the field turned to coaching and front office positions. Once again, it wasn’t viewed by most people as a problem because the mantra is that the NFL is a meritocracy. We are always going to find the best people. But it was rare to see a Black face in coaching or management then. I started my coaching career in 1981 and in eight of my first ten seasons as an assistant coach I was the only African American on the staff. Many former African American players never thought of going into coaching because they couldn’t see a future in it. Some may have wanted to coach in the NFL but were turned away. But as owners like Eddie DeBartolo, Al Davis and Dan Rooney began to change the culture of their organizations, that slowly began to change. We went from 10 African American assistant coaches in 1977 to the over 200 in 2020. Men like Art Shell, Denny Green, Lovie Smith, and Mike Tomlin rose through the ranks of assistant coaches to become head coaches. They’ve led teams to the playoffs, and even to the Super Bowl. And the NFL has been better for it.
That brings us to today, 2021, and the teams you own. The league is prospering. The game on the field is exciting. But we can’t bury our head in the sand and not acknowledge the elephant in the room—that you are not hiring the best, and most deserving people in all departments of your teams. Yes, we have made tremendous progress in diversity from 1946 to now—in some areas. Almost 70% of the players are African Americans. Over 30% of the assistant coaches are minorities. We will have two female coaches and a female official on the sidelines of this year’s Super Bowl. But there are other areas where the representation is not nearly as complete. Look at the c-suites of your teams, the medical staffs, and the ultimate decision makers—the head coaches and GMs—and you’ll see those faces don’t represent what your teams look like. And it has been discouraging to see that in the last three hiring cycles of head coaches, things have not been much different. Are we to believe that you’re really doing exhaustive searches, trying to uncover the best coaches, but only two out of the last 20 have been African Americans?
You should know how much it hurt me in 1977 to graduate from college and not be given a chance to try to play QB in the NFL. It hurt in 1993 to have coordinated the number one defense in the NFL and not get an interview for one of the five head coaching openings that year. But I have to tell you it hurts even more to see African American coaches going through the same thing almost 30 years later. And it will hurt to see four African American coordinators in this Super Bowl who will be questioning whether they will actually get an opportunity to be a head coach in the foreseeable future. And this is hurting our league.
What is the solution to this problem? How can we make the situation better and make our league better? I believe it comes down to you. You are the 32 men and women that determine the direction of your franchise and the direction of the entire league. You set the policies and you make the decisions. You are the key players. I know that’s the case because for 13 years I was in a position similar to yours. As the head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs, then the Indianapolis Colts, I was responsible for everything that took place with our players. If we didn’t perform well on the field, it was my job to fix it. If we had players who didn’t represent the team well off the field, I was responsible for changing that. It was my responsibility to develop the plan for reaching the goal of being champions, on and off the field.
That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. Because ultimately you are the decision makers that determine the direction of the NFL. Are those decisions going to simply involve trying to win Super Bowls and be profitable, or will they be about making the NFL the best it can be? I’m suggesting, and history has shown, you don’t have to choose. I’m asking you to keep the legacy moving forward and make the NFL the best league we can be. And I’m believing that you’re going to do that. Please show me that my faith in you is justified.