Why do some NFL teams never hire people of color as GMs and coaches and others do?
With the NFL currently having just three coaches of color and two Black general managers, the Atlanta Falcons seem to be sending a message that teams really do understand it’s no longer enough to pay lip service to diversity.
In need of both a coach and a GM, Atlanta’s interview list is filled with Black and brown men. While the Rooney Rule requires teams to interview at least two people of color for coaching openings, the Falcons have interviewed four. The five candidates who interviewed for the GM job are all Black or brown, and the Falcons do not plan to interview anyone else.
It’s promising. It’s also out of character for the Falcons.
The Falcons have never had a person of color as their full-time coach or GM.
But the Falcons are not alone, according to USA TODAY Sports analysis of NFL hiring practices since 1990.
Four franchises – the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Las Vegas Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – are responsible for 32% of all the Black and brown coaches and GMs hired in the past 30 years, while Atlanta and six other teams have not had a single person of color in either of their two most important positions.
The Falcons had no comment other than to point out what they are doing this hiring cycle.
“We’re stuck,” said Tony Dungy, the Hall of Fame coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts. “I don’t know if you can force people to make good decisions.”
When Art Shell became the first Black head coach in the NFL’s modern era in 1989, the hope was that his hiring would lead to more opportunities for other coaches of color, as well as general managers. People who would have the power and influence to create a pipeline of talent so NFL owners couldn’t fall back on the excuse that there weren’t any good Black and brown candidates.
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But results since then have been abysmal. Of the 327 full-time coaches and general managers hired since 1990, USA TODAY Sports found that 40 were Black or brown.
For the purpose of this project, USA TODAY Sports looked at full-time hires made from 1990 through the start of this season, and classified a general manager as someone who had control over the coaching staff in addition to the 53-man roster.
Even the adoption of the Rooney Rule in 2003 has not brought greater diversity. There were a record-tying eight coaches of color in 2018 – a quarter of the 32 teams in a league where about 70% of players are Black – but that dwindled to three when the Los Angeles Chargers fired Anthony Lynn after the recently concluded regular season.
It is the divide that is most startling, however. Among USA TODAY Sports’ findings:
►Ten franchises have hired more than one person of color, accounting for 62% of the 40 Black and brown coaches and GMs hired since 1990. The Browns lead the way with four, two coaches and two GMs, while the Buccaneers, Cardinals and Raiders have had three each.
The Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets each have had two people of color as their coach or GM. Indianapolis went from one Black head coach, Dungy, to another, Jim Caldwell.
“What I benefited from both in Tampa and Indianapolis was that I worked for people who didn’t just talk about hiring the best people, and having a diverse staff, but actually worked to do it,” said Dungy, now an analyst with NBC.
►The Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans have never had a person of color as either their coach or general manager.
Collectively, they have made 60 hires since 1990, 41 coaches and 19 general managers.
►The Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks have not hired a person of color since 1999. Each of the teams has had one head coach of color – Tom Flores for the Seahawks and Ray Rhodes for both the Eagles and Packers.
It's on NFL owners
The NFL's diversity failings are not for a lack of trying by the league office.
In 2003, the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview at least one Black or brown candidate for any open coaching position. That was expanded in 2009 to include general manager and equivalent front-office positions.
In May, following a third consecutive hiring cycle in which only one man of color got a head coaching job, the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule again. Now teams must interview two external minority candidates for head coach openings, and at least one for coordinator jobs. Women also were included in the definition of minority.
The league, led by executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, has also worked with the Fritz Pollard Alliance and Black and brown coaches and executives, past and present, to compile a list of minority candidates. In November, it approved giving teams additional draft picks for developing minority coaches and executives who are hired as head coaches and GMs.
But the NFL can only do so much when it is individual team owners who do the actual hiring.
“I wish could say `X, Y and Z and then it will happen.’ But the buck stops with the owners. This is one of those issues where it’s entirely leadership-owned,” said Pamela Newkirk, who devoted a chapter to the NFL in her book "Diversity, Inc.: The Fight for Racial Equality in the Workplace."
“It’s not an issue of rocket science or we just don’t know how to do it,” Newkirk added. “We have myriad ways to make this happen, whether through recruiting efforts, reaching outside of the familiar networks you tap into, the Rooney Rule. … The strategies are not what’s lacking. It comes back to whether or not these owners are willing to do it.
“That’s it. The buck is stopping with them.”
Research has shown that bias – implicit and otherwise – plays a significant role in hiring, with decision makers tending to gravitate toward people they see as similar. That’s exacerbated in the NFL, where the coach and, to a lesser degree, the general manager are the “face” of billion-dollar franchises that are owned overwhelmingly by white men.
Unless owners are intentional about confronting their biases, Newkirk said the status quo will prevail.
“I think it will come down to economics,” she said. “If they continue to get away with doing it, they’ll continue to do it. If fans continue to support it and sponsors continue to support it – if we continue to normalize exclusion, that’s what will happen.”
Notably, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Rams owner Stan Kroenke were members of the NFL committee that created the Rooney Rule. So, too, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. Neither the Falcons nor Rams have hired a person of color as coach or GM, while the Eagles haven’t since Rhodes was fired in 1998.
Two of the other teams that have never hired a person of color as head coach or general manager do have long-term stability at those positions. Bill Belichick has been coach and de facto GM of the Patriots since 2000, and Mickey Loomis became Saints GM in 2002 and hired Sean Payton four years later.
But the Patriots hired four coaches between 1990 and 2000, and the Saints hired two coaches and a GM prior to Loomis and Payton.
Jerry Jones has been his own GM since buying the Cowboys in 1989. He’s hired seven coaches since then, including Mike McCarthy, whose hiring last year after a cursory search raised eyebrows.
“The pipeline is robust. The league office has moved mountains with the Rooney Rule,” said Cyrus Mehri, co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a non-profit organization that champions diversity in the NFL. “Ultimately, there needs to be a cultural change, where leadership at the top really embraces it in a genuine, heartfelt way, and ensures there’s fair, merit-based decision making for all positions at a club so all candidates can compete for the full panoply of opportunities.”
Getting to know you
Andy Reid used to sit in on owners’ meetings when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles, giving him a chance to get to know some of the other owners. It also gave him an opportunity to think about who he might like to work with, should he ever leave Philadelphia, and the Hunt family in Kansas City was at the top of his list.
Fast forward to 2012. Reid was fired by the Eagles on Monday. He was hired by the Chiefs on Friday.
It’s those kinds of personal connections that are essential to overcoming the NFL’s diversity failings, said Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame executive who hired Dungy and Caldwell in Indianapolis and, years earlier, was responsible for Elijah Pitts being elevated to assistant coach in Buffalo.
“If you get to know a person, if you can put a face with a name, if you have an impression, however fleeting, it’s very different than just hearing a name for the first time. Or reading about them,” Polian said.
“These decisions are not at the league level, they’re made in 32 different team offices,” he said. “The introduction to 32 different owners and 32 different general managers and team presidents is really what’s important.
“If you get to know a person and become familiar with them, they’re not a label anymore. They’re a person. They’re an individual.”
Then, when people of color are in position to influence, they can pull others along. Dungy recalls being in Tampa and asking his scouts for recommendations on a new assistant, and them giving him Lovie Smith’s name.
Dungy hired Smith, whose experience to that point was in the college ranks, as his linebackers coach. Eight years later, Smith became the Chicago Bears’ first Black head coach.
“We had a diverse staff,” Dungy said. “That diversity meant there were a lot of open minds.”
Just hire, baby
For all of the studies and committees and initiatives, achieving diversity really is as simple as just doing it. Take the Raiders.
Legendary owner Al Davis broke the NFL’s modern-day color barrier by hiring Flores, the league’s first Hispanic coach, in 1979. He then hired Shell in 1989. He also hired Amy Trask as CEO, the first woman to be a team executive in the NFL.
Davis, who also was the Raiders’ general manager, died in 2011 and control of the team passed to his son, Mark. His first significant hire? Reggie McKenzie as the team’s first Black general manager.
“Al hired without regard to race, gender and other individualities which have no bearing on whether one can do a job, many decades before this was a topic of conversation in the National Football League,” said Trask, now an analyst for CBS Sports.
But 30-plus years after Davis hired Shell, that conversation feels no closer to reaching a conclusion. Two hires have already been announced, and both – general managers for the Texans and Broncos – were white men.
“We’re out of the excuses that have been used for a century to explain an acute under-representation of minorities in leadership positions,” said Newkirk, the author of Diversity, Inc. “Now it’s just coming down to, `OK, we’re just going to normalize the exclusion of people of color in these roles.'”