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CultureNFLOpinion

Ron Rivera Firing Shows NFL Still Clueless On Race Optics

The NFL stays ahead of the game, but way behind the times.

Let’s see if Jay-Z can fix this one: 

On Sunday the Carolina Panthers lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 40-20. It was the first game in nine years that HC Ron Rivera was not on the sidelines. His dismissal marks another man down for NFL head coaches of color.

Last week —  with a 5-7 record, Cam Newton nursing a Lisfranc injury and years of physical Superman shit, and a young 23-year-old named Kyle Allen leading the way — Carolina decided to part ways with Riverboat Ron, the winningest coach in franchise history, thus eliminating the longest-tenured Hispanic coach in the game. 

NFL Head Coaches of Color: Vanishing Act

Not too long ago — 2018 in fact — Ron Rivera was one of eight NFL head coaches of color holding down the sidelines as league’s only Latino HC and just the third in history. 

Breaking barriers as a player and coach have been the storyline of Rivera’s career. He not only represents NFL diversity, but he was a winning head coach with a Super Bowl appearance, who was the American Dream in real life. He represented a growing legion of coaches of color putting their cultural imprint on the NFL. 

Then came The Black coaching purge of 2018 that saw five of the seven African-American coaches in the NFL fired and replaced with white coaches.

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Marvin Lewis (Bengals, 6-10), Vance Joseph (Broncos, 6-10), Todd Bowles (Jets, 4-12), Hue Jackson (Browns, 7-8) and Steve Wilks (Cardinals, 3-13) were all dumped in favor of less experienced, white coaches. 

Rivera, who has a 76-63-1 record in nine seasons at the helm, made the playoffs four times in his first seven seasons as head coach and his, .546 winning percentage is all-time amongst Panthers coaches. 

He did all of this while laying the foundation for future Latino coaches to get an opportunity to lead an NFL team. Miami Dolphins rookie coach Brian Flores is the child of Honduran immigrants who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. Rivera’s existence and longevity as a leader made his opportunity more accessible.

Rivera has guided and nurtured Cam Newton’s career and when Cam hit the skids the past three seasons due to injuries, so did the Panthers team. There’s a direct correlation between the past two losing seasons, change of ownership and the absence of a healthy Cam Newton. However, Panthers brass is choosing to ignore that obvious fact.   

More than anything, Rivera’s firing is another black eye on NFL ownership. Add Panthers owner Dave Tepper to the list of white leadership refuses to grasp the way that they have offended people of color over the past few years. 

Critics of this piece will say, “But wait, Carolina replaced him with Perry Fewell, a Black coach”:

Yes, but let’s see if his interim tag becomes a permanent position. He was just next in line like a Vice President when the President can’t fulfill his duty. We all know that the VP is never considered a strong presidential candidate, so a non-person of color will almost certainly become the next head coach.

Rivera represented Hispanic excellence at the leadership level, in an NFL where that cultural element is almost nonexistent, despite a legion of Latino NFL fans.

Even when former owner Jerry Richardson made derogatory statements against Colin Kaepernick and showed a disregard for people of color across the country, Rivera was the pillar of class and dignity and his name remained unscathed when the owner was forced to sell the team. 

Panthers’ Jerry Richardson To Sell Team After Creating Culture Of Sexual Harassment

 El Elegido 

When it comes to Latinos in football, just call him “The Chosen One.” 

Drafted in 1984 by the Chicago Bears, Rivera became the first person of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent to play in the NFL. It was the first time, he truly began to understand his significance in the NFL. 

 I honestly wasn’t aware of it until I got drafted and people started asking me to come talk to different Hispanic groups and I was like, “Hey, that’s great.” But it wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to. I guess that all goes back to my father (a native Puerto Rican, who was in the United States Army) and the military environment. You don’t see color and you don’t see race. The only thing you see is rank, Rivera said in a 2012 ESPN interview.

 

Riveras mother’s family migrated from Mexico to Colorado and then to the Salinas Valley of California. 

My father was based there, they met at a USO event, and the rest is history.

We moved around a lot in the military, so it wasn’t like if I had grown up in Puerto Rico and been exposed only to soccer, baseball and volleyball, or Mexico, where the main sports are soccer and baseball. Football was around as much as anything else.

When he was hired as coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2011, Rivera was the third Latino to become a head coach in the NFL  (New Orleans coach Tom Fears and Oakland Raiders and Seahawks coach Tom Flores preceded him) and the second to lead a team to the Superbowl in 2015, when he followed in Flores footsteps. 

Flores, won a Super Bowl as a backup QB for the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, was a member of John Madden’s 1976 Oakland Raiders Super Bowl-winning staff and then broke ground by winning two Super Bowl rings as head coach of the Raiders after the 1980 and 1983 seasons. 

Rivera was still searching for that elusive Super Bowl ring. Now he’s searching for a job. But his importance to the game and the impact on his community is commendable. Together, Flores and Rivera represent the Latino connection to pro football. 

We’ve talked about the importance of it, and it’s just kind of neat that we can be trailblazers, Rivera said recently of Flores and the exclusive Latino football coaching fraternity on ESPNs Max y Marly One Nation podcast. He was somebody that I looked up [to] when I was playing professional football and then, as I started getting into coaching, thinking that I might be able to have the same kind of impact on some young coach like he did on me.

Tom has achieved, accomplished what I hope to, and thats winning a Super Bowl. That, to me, is huge in its own right. So, to be mentioned in the same breath as him? I take a lot of pride in that.

In addition to his success as a head coach, Rivera showed courage and a willingness to go against the grain when the Panthers signed blackballed free safety Eric Reid to a contract. As a man of color, who also respects the military a great deal, Rivera understood the underlying racial and political divides inhibiting Reid from finding a job.   

It’s interesting that a top-flight NFL coach like Rivera — a guy who has gone 15-1 in a season — didn’t get the respect of letting him finish out the year 

When Rivera was fired on Dec. 3, Black and Hispanic Twitter immediately looked side-eyed at Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett who has also been at the helm for nine years in Dallas, suffering embarrassing losses and underachieving. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, however, refuses to fire him because he “likes him.”

He’s like a son to Jerry. Head coaches of color don’t have the advantage of that kind of familiarity with the all-white ownership. It’s not more obvious than in this case. 

Hopefully, Rivera’s winning record will help him secure a job at the end of the season because the NFL is totally missing the mark by eliminating him from the head coaching ranks. He’s one of the best in the game and his legacy and importance to the league extend beyond the football field.

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