NFL Struggles to Bring Blacks and Other Minorities Into Coaching, Front-Office Positions

Former Ravens assistant David Culley was the only Black head coach to be hired by an NFL team this offseason. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Even with rules in place that are designed to improve diversity, the NFL has struggled to build a pipeline for bringing Blacks and other minorities into coaching and front-office positions.

The lead investigator for the latest NFL Inclusion and Diversity Report gives a nod to the less-than-satisfying nature of the numbers in that report by leading off his opening message with the reminder: “Progress is a process.”

In 2021, the process produced these statistics: Black players make up about 70% of team rosters but the league has only three Black head coaches, while it had eight in 2011; Black coaches who fail in their first try in the jobs get inordinately fewer second and third chances than their white counterparts; the NFL this year recalibrated its much-celebrated Rooney Rule, which ensures minority candidates for front-office positions are identified and interviewed, to make sure teams talk to at least two such candidates for front-office positions and coordinator roles.

“There’s also a matter of who they think is most marketable, who resonates with their fan base,” said Anthony Weems, an assistant professor at Florida International University who wrote a dissertation on NFL owners and the social structure they created over a century. “Over time, a lot of these owners are the same people, or the teams got passed down in the family. So it’s almost like, ‘Why would things have changed if the actual players in those positions haven’t changed?’” Weems said.

John Solow, an Iowa professor who co-wrote a paper on the Rooney Rule in 2011, said that in the universe the owners have created, it can be argued that it’s hard to tell if Black assistant coaches are being discriminated against because, compared to whites in the same positions, there haven’t been enough of them over the years to do a truly scientific study on the issue.

For instance, between 2012-2021, whites were hired for 168 of the 219 (76%) open coordinator positions, which are considered the top launching pads for head-coaching jobs. That almost mirrors the hiring pattern for head coaches: Whites have been tabbed for 51 of the 62 openings (82%) since 2012.

– Ella Breedlove