On The Eve Of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday Mike Tomlin Is The NFL’s Only Black Head Coach | Where Do We Go From Here?

(Graphics by David Grubb)

With the firings of Houston Texans head coach David Culley and former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stands as the only Black head coach in the NFL. In 2022 on the eve of the birthday of this nation’s most iconic civil rights leader that’s a shame. But we can’t be surprised.

In 2003 the NFL enacted the Rooney Rule, which sets the guidelines for ethnic-minority hiring practices. Like many guidelines, teams found their way around it. Minority candidates were often “interviewed” to satisfy the requirement, but never actually taken seriously.

The league announced enhancements to the Rooney Rule at the beginning of the season, including mandating at least one in-person interview with an external minority candidate for head coach and general manager jobs.

It’s unlikely that changes anything in a significant way.

League owners are overwhelmingly white, male and politically conservative. That doesn’t typically lend itself to empathy toward the plight of the disadvantaged in most, if not all, situations.

The summer of 2020 was touted as a racial awakening that would change the way we view racial injustice and the ills of a country founded on slavery. Sports was to be a catalyst in that change. But beyond a few token symbolic gestures what has materially changed?

The positions of power in the NFL, general manager and head coach, are still largely filled by white men. The same coded racist language exists when draft prospects are discussed, specifically black quarterbacks; and the same Black coordinators get discussed as “prime” head coaching candidates, only to be passed over by younger unproven white men.

Doesn’t Seem Like Much Has Changed

The Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, Dolphins and Texans are all looking for head coaches. That’s eight open positions.

If Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, and Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham all get hired as head coaches that’s 37% of the available positions. Pretty good.

That would mean four of the 32 head coaches would be Nlack. 12.5%. Not great, but trending in the right direction.

But the likelihood of that happening is slim. NFL owners already know who they want to hire when their head coach position is available, and if they don’t their ultimate veto authority allows them to decide who it is with no real rhyme or reason.

That’s partly why the Rooney Rule is so ineffective.

The Giants fired Joe Judge as their head coach earlier this week. Team co-owner and CEO John Mara addressed the media and talked about the role his brother Chris Mara, senior vice president of player personnel, plays in the in the head coach selection process.

“Chris is in those interviews ‘cause he’s part of ownership and I value his opinion,” said John Mara. “I value his skills and I want him in there. At the end of the day, I’ll listen to him, but it will be Steve and myself making the final decision.”

Steve is Steve Tisch, co-owner of the team.

Here is an example of a process that isn’t transparent, and ultimately the final decision is made and there doesn’t have to be a reason why a selection was made. What skills does John Mara value in Chris that make him qualified to weigh in? Nobody knows, and they don’t have to say.

Point being teams can do whatever they want in terms of hiring and there is no way to ensure all qualified candidates get a fair shot.

The NFL’s diversity committee and some powerful people within the league might want this to change. But there is no way to actually achieve that without full transparency, which will never happen.

So instead they’ll just continue to amend the Rooney Rule and trust that people will do the right thing.

On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday the question is often asked what King would think of the world today? Nobody knows. But if we’re talking about progress, King’s words from his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” ring as true now as they did then.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”

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