The Data Don't Lie: An Open Letter to NFL Owners
Why this matters
Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute, shares his perspective on why the NFL and its owners continue to languish in the hiring of Black coaches.
So much uncertainty went into this season, and as business operators, you beat all odds against making it through 2020. That accomplishment is commendable, a monumental feat, with significant risks. Playing this season amid the global pandemic, with a fraction of fans in the stands, was a grand incarnation of “the show must go on.”
But the low point going into 2021 has been the NFL’s hiring of African American head coaches. The hiring of just one African American head coach during this cycle is a sad travesty.
I have been fortunate enough to meet and even work with some of you over the years—an honor and a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
The gamble of this season was an unknown that you all were willing to take, collectively. Yet, the abysmal hiring record of Black head coaches indicates that most franchises continue to struggle with their identity and role in social progress. Slogans alone are not enough.
Last summer, we all saw with our own eyes a country awakened on race. Commissioner Roger Goodell even uttered words that perhaps many thought he'd never say: “Black Lives Matter.”
Eighteen years ago, as owners, you agreed to take on a rule, the Rooney Rule, to address the disconnect between those on your fields and those commanding them. The net, the data scraped from our work, shows that despite the auspiciousness of the rule, not much has changed since the inception of the idea. And even when you all agreed to extend the rule to the front office (which, yes, we've seen an increase in Blacks gaining the general manager title in this hiring season), it would appear that such an influence hasn't extended itself to the head coach position.
To be blunt, this isn't an issue of just color; this is an issue of Black leadership and White decision-making within the sport.
It's natural to get emotional about race. This is why our team at the Global Sport Institute took on the challenge to examine the NFL's historical record on hiring coaches of color. To be blunt, this isn't an issue of just color; this is an issue of Black leadership and White decision-making within the sport.
The NFL should be commended for its offseason work in strengthening the Rooney Rule. I had some involvement in those conversations, so I count myself in on the part of this head coach hiring season failure. The result is that the Rooney Rule did not work to bring about significant hiring of Black coaches. This is a failure of ownership.
I'm not calling anyone racist, and I'm also not giving anyone an unconscious bias pass. I am saying that apparently, having a “rule” really hasn’t leveled the playing field.
As many of you finalize your teams for next season, I'm left wondering which inflection point will change the game? If it's not statistics, then what must be done to change your hearts and minds?
The long-held argument is that this is a pipeline problem; it isn't. That Black coaches win fewer games. Nope. That Black coaches don't have enough experience. Look again. The data don't lie.
So, what is it?
As owners, you get to pick and choose whom you employ. For the bulk of you, it appears that despite the league office assisting you, data telling you, and maybe even some people inside your organization cajoling you that you should hire a Black coach, you choose to ignore it and won't.
Your decisions, like so many others, are based on personal choice. A choice that can't be ignored for much longer.
Ill will. Unconscious bias. Bad logic. Some reasons are worse than others. But it has reached the point where you should be prepared in each hiring decision to explain: Why not?
Pause. Reflect. And then answer: Was passing on the Black candidate the correct business decision? Or was it something else?
The Rooney Rule was triggered by threatened legal action by Cyrus Mehri and the great Johnnie Cochran. They pulled together the data that showed Blacks head coaches' disparate treatment, mostly in terms of retention. Perhaps there should be a renewed strategy to look at this issue at the micro-level, to contemplate lawsuits against individual franchises to gain greater insight through the discovery process.
I don’t have to tell you the definition of insanity. We’re living it. While the league has worked hard to make improvements across the league, change must come from the club level, and that starts with you, owners.
We can use data as a weapon, we can use litigation to pry open more truths, but we can also shift our minds to the matter's real issue: a continued denial of Black opportunity.
How the NFL Moves Forward
18 years after the inception of the Rooney Rule, data shows a lack of forward progress when it comes to diversity at the highest levels of leadership in the NFL.
What actions are necessary to move the chains on safety, equity, and inclusion in the league?