A Look at Institutional Racism in the NFL


     In the NFL, every January there is a coaching carousel that occurs, which usually sees somewhere between six and eight teams picking a new head coach. Most times, hires are either offensive or defensive coordinators of units that were very successful in the previous season. Nearly every single coach has played football at the collegiate level or higher and about a quarter of the NFL’s coaches played at the professional level. In the NFL in 2020, the league is 70% black, but just 16% of the head coaches are black. Those numbers clearly show that there is some kind of racial bias against black coaches. This is a problem that is hard to solve instantly, as 14 of the 64 coordinators in the NFL are black and only two offensive coordinators are black. Offensive coordinators are hired more often than defensive coordinators. 

    The NFL saw its first black head coach in 1979 with Tom Flores coaching the Raiders to two Super Bowls in his tenure. However, there were not many black coaches hired, as just seven black coaches were hired in the next 24 years, at which point the NFL instituted the ‘Rooney Rule,’ which meant that teams needed to interview a minority candidate for all head coaching and all senior football positions. The rule has seen mixed success with 21 minority (20 black) coaches being hired in the next 17 years, but there is just one more black coach in the NFL today than there was when the rule was instituted. The NFL added even more incentive to hire black coaches in 2020 as teams that hire a black head coach or general manager receive an extra third-round pick. However, just two black coaches have been hired since the rule went into effect.   

     The man who has been shown as the biggest example of racism towards black coaching options is Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (featured image above). He was promoted to the offensive coordinator job in 2018 and immediately had the top-ranked offense. He then had the sixth-ranked offense in 2019, won the Super Bowl and in 2020, the Chiefs had more yards than any other offense this season. While it is true that Andy Reid calls plays, not Bieniemy and he has a lot of superstar talent around him, he has shown that he is certainly deserving of a head coaching opportunity. Reid has waxed poetic about Bieniemy, saying, “I was really hoping he would have an opportunity to take one of these jobs. You guys know what I think of him. He’s great.” There are many articles that detail Bieniemy’s career and coaching snubs, so if you are interested in reading more about Bieniemy, please feel free to look online.

    Of the current coaches in the NFL who played in the NFL, more than half of them are former quarterbacks and 75% white in the modern-day NFL. This is something that has changed dramatically in recent years. It’s a major reason for why so many of the NFL’s coaches and coordinators are overwhelmingly white. However, the reason that white players are primarily quarterbacks, offensive linemen, linebackers and special teams players is due to the fact that players are groomed to play those positions from a young age. By the same token, young black players are groomed to play running back, wide receiver and cornerback. This doesn’t mean that black players are unsuccessful when they play quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray are some of the many black quarterbacks that have been successful in recent years. This may lead to an increase in black coaching positions over the next few years, but that is still yet to be seen. 

    When comparing the NFL to the MLB and NBA, the NBA has an 81% black player rate and just over 20% of the coaches are black, though they did peak at 14 of the 30 coaches being black in 2012-2013. The NBA doesn’t have a “Rooney Rule” of its own, though there have been talks that one should be added. If you are more interested in the NBA’s coaching disparity read here: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-nba-has-lost-ground-on-hiring-and-retaining-black-coaches/. In the MLB, there are just two black managers, but only 8% of the player base are black, which makes it more understandable that the MLB is not as diverse. There are so few black NHL players that it will be a long time before the NHL’s coaching staff diversifies. 

    The NFL’s coaching discrimination stems from a program that is corrupted from the youngest levels of the game and will take years to fix. However, with more and more black superstars, there will also be more black coaches. It isn’t a problem that will fix itself, but the changes are being made, even if individual years see a deserving black candidate passed up for a less qualified or deserving white candidate. This is a problem that needs to be addressed and talked about and teams need to be called out for not giving more black coaches a chance. Eight teams have still never hired a black head coach (Jacksonville only had an interim one), only 10 teams have had multiple black coaches and just the Raiders, Buccaneers, Jets, and Browns have had three black coaches. It will be a long journey towards equity in the NFL coaching ranks, but with hard work, it can and will be reached.

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