Crossroads: Race and Coaching in the NFL

Anyone searching for job security shouldn't look for a career in NFL coaching. A full one-quarter of coaches have been canned including Oakland’s Norv Turner, New Orleans’ Jim Haslett, and a myriad of Mikes: Mike Sherman of Green Bay, Mike Tice from Minnesota, and Mike Martz in St. Louis. Mike Mularkey of Buffalo looks safe as does Mike Nolan in San Francisco but both had lousy seasons so give it a year for the next round of disposable Mikes. The coaching fallout hardly surprises. This year the league has suffered through what scribe Bill Simmons has called "perpetual putridity," making the compelling case that thirteen NFL teams now "truly suck."


But perpetual putridity can have its upside. It creates an opportunity for NFL owners to make a serious dent in the apartheid feng shui that defines the coaching quarters in the NFL. The stats are staggering.  In the 16 years since Art Shell became the NFL’s first African-American head coach, progress has come at a glacial pace. The NFL coaching fraternity makes the US Senate look like Soul Train. 65% of the league is African-American yet only six coaches are Black. This should neither shock nor stun. A typical meeting of NFL owners resembles Thanksgiving at Hootie Johnson's house. They hire the familiar, the comfortable, the white; even if that means hiring a white coach who has been around the bend so many times that they wear failure like a second skin.

Anthony Prior, a former NFL cornerback whose new book A Slave System On Sunday, calls out the institutionalized racism in pro football, says the problem is more than skin deep. Prior told me that the culture of white supremacy is so intense, even African-American players can be heard denigrating Black coaches. African-Americans in positions of leadership aren't taken seriously, while "I heard white coaches called 'boss' like we're on a plantation."

The irony of all this is that independent studies show African-American head coaches have far outperformed their white counterparts. This is all the more remarkable considering they are almost always set up for failure on the bottom feeding teams of the league where the culture of losing runs so thick fans wear paper and plastic bags on their heads. Coaches are responsible not just for mastering the Xs and Os but also convincing a community that their team won't be a source of shame. That’s what Marvin Lewis has done in Cincinnati, where a squad recently known as “the Bungle”s just won their division, or what Tony Dungy did in Tampa Bay, when in 1996 he turned the Buccaneers from a punch line into a contender. When Tampa won the Super Bowl in 2003, during John Gruden's first year as head coach, players like Warren Sapp and John Lynch gave props to Dungy in the post game celebrations.

This year, expect the top three vote getters for NFL Coach of the Year to be head coaches of African descent. There is Dungy, whose Colts flirted with an unbeaten season, the Bengals' Marvin Lewis, and also Lovie Smith, whose Chicago Bears were predicted by Sports Illustrated to come 32nd out of 32 teams but instead won their division.

We should also expect owners to take the “whites only” sign off the door for present vacancies. Now is the opportunity for real progress. Unfortunately, we get former wide receiver and current pundit Cris Collinsworth writing, "A great story is unfolding in the National Football League, and nobody is talking about it. There are currently a record-number six African-American head coaches in the NFL, and three of them are leading candidates to be the coach of the year.  I find it so interesting that so little has been said or written about the success of these three coaches. But maybe that is the greatest sign of progress."

As Michael Wilbon likes to say, "Don't spit in my face and tell me it's raining."  Progress will be when 65% of coaches are African-American; not 18%. The fact this shameful disparity is not discussed openly is part of the problem, not a sign that we are in a "post-racist" moment. Right now, as the coaching vacancies pile up, it is precisely the time to talk about it.

In fact, the biggest reason there has been even a modicum of progress in recent years is because the late Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri threatened a mass anti-discrimination suit in 2002, when the number of Black head coaches stood at two. To squelch Cochran and company, the NFL put in place rules that require teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every vacancy. Collinsworth writes that because of Dungy, Lewis, and Smith's success, "those requirements might no longer be necessary." But Collinsworth gets it all wrong. The fact is that we need someone to pick up the torch from the late Mr. Cochran and shine light on the fact that NFL's owners have a historic choice in front of them: They can rehire the Mike merry-go-round, or give people like Ted Cottrell, Norm Chow, and Jimmy Raye a shot. This decision is about justice, fairness, and basic hiring morality. It's also about putting the best possible product on the field and delivering the NFL from "perpetual putridity."

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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