The day after the end of the NFL season, when teams fire allegedly underperforming head coaches, is known as Black Monday. This year that nickname was a tad too on the nose. Of the seven NFL head coaches fired, five are black. That leaves the league with only two black head coaches, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Los Angeles Chargers coach Mike Lynn. In a league that is 70-percent African American, the number of black head coaches has never even hit 30 percent.
There are also still no black owners, and “the Rooney rule” that owners interview candidates of color is completely toothless. A sport where player careers last only three-and-a-half years is built on disposable black bodies, indifference to brain damage and a country-club dismissal of black brain power.
It is this reality that compelled Michael Bennett of the Philadelphia Eagles to write in his 2018 book (which I co-wrote), Things That Make White People Uncomfortable: “If the NFL were really integrated these numbers would be different. The NFL needed what’s called the Rooney Rule just to require owners to sit down with black coaching candidates. They needed a rule just to talk to us. Not hire us. Talk to us.”
But why should anyone be surprised? This is a league whose owners gave upward of $8 million to the shady Trump Inauguration Committee. This is a league that is still signing quarterbacks who were terrible in college while denying Colin Kaepernick employment because he dared to speak out for racial justice and against police violence.
NFL franchise owners even wanted to fine or suspend players for protesting racial inequity, until the union intervened. Such a league is not going to hire black coaches unless it is compelled to do so.
I reached out to attorney N. Jeremi Duru, author of the book Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. He says, “This is the lowest number of black coaches in the league since 2002 when Herm Edwards stood alone. The Rooney Rule has been good for the league, and over the years we’ve seen clubs consider and hire candidates they might not have otherwise, but we’ve also seen clubs pay the rule lip service and go through the motions with no intention of ever considering the candidate of color. There must be more.
“We have to promote initiatives that get more people of color involved on the offensive side of the ball as coaches,” Duru continues. “Once that happens, and the pipeline builds, I think we’ll start to see the number of coaches of color rise and stabilize.”
It starts with acknowledging that the low number of black coaches is not happenstance: It’s due to the racism that runs deep in the owners’ boxes of the National Football League.
Yet this is about more than racism. It’s about respect for labor. It’s about justice. And it’s about the NFL finally joining the 21st century.