“Mike Tomlin currently is the NFL’s only Black head coach,” tweeted NFL Insider Adam Shefter. Now, I am a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, but even with the bias, I was not pleased but moved by this tweet when I read it. It was just a few years ago when we were celebrating the rise of the Black coach in the NFL, and now the trend seems to be moving in reverse.
This offseason, several NFL owners have made questionable and head-scratching decisions about their team leader. Even after leading the team to its second straight winning season, the Miami Dolphins decided to part ways with their head coach Brian Flores. The firing comes after the team bounced back from a seven-game losing streak to win seven straight and narrowly miss the playoffs.
Flores is an accomplished coach, winning four Super Bowls as a defensive coach. Since he was 23, Flores has been under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and a part of one of the winningest franchises in the New England Patriots. In the last two years, Flores finished 10-6 and 9-8, two records good enough to offer a coach an extension, yet in a surprise move, Flores was fired. Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross claimed “lack of collaboration” between Flores, and general manager Chris Grier, two Black men, as the reason for his firing.
In a move that added more salt into the wound, the Houston Texans fired David Culley after just his first season. Culley was handed a team amid complete chaos. His star and most important player, Deshaun Watson, never took a snap as he was in the middle of sexual assault allegations for the duration of the season. With no key players and culture, you could describe the energy as a dumpster fire; Culley finished the season 4-13. Given the circumstances, that record does not show just how good and hard the Texans played this season and should give much credit to Culley, yet he was fired.
I honestly cannot say I am surprised. Owners from all over the league have a history of doing this. For instance, Tony Dungy was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after finishing 9-7. Dungy would have a legendary career and coach one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Peyton Manning. Together they would lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl win against another accomplished Black coach, Lovie Smith, or the case of Jim Caldwell, who the Detroit Lions fired after a 9-7 record in 2017. Since then, the Lion has yet to accomplish another winning season.
Tomlin as the lone Black head coach rubs me the wrong way because there is no lack of great head coach candidates. Eric Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, is the mastermind behind one of the most phenomenal offenses in the last few seasons. He is conducting an offense that has won a Super Bowl and appeared in two of the previous three. Bieniemy interviewed for 11 different teams and has yet to be hired. Other notable candidates like Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Todd Bowles, Kansas City defensive coordinator, add to the field.
It is not like the NFL is not taking steps to implement Black coaches into organizations; they are trying every means to. For example, in 2003, the NFL implemented the “Rooney Rule,” requiring league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is an example of affirmative action, even though there is no hiring quota or preference given to minorities, only an interviewing quota. In addition, in 2021, the NFL put a new policy where teams who developed minority candidates and hired them as a general manager or head coach would get a draft pick compensation. Even with all these implementations, change is slow and moving in the opposite direction of its intent, causing concern and raising eyebrows of the systematic racism prevalent in the NFL.
For comparison, the NBA nearly doubled the percentage of Black coaches, jumping from 23% to 43%. Of the eight open positions, seven head coaches were hired, with four being former players. Of the 12 Black coaches in the league, it is fair to say they have all done a great job holding their own and leading their team. Eight of the 12 reached the playoffs last year, with Monty Williams earning an NBA Finals birth in just his second season as head coach. The talent and skill are there to win when coaches are given a suitable platform and opportunity to succeed.
This same platform and opportunity can be seen in other leagues as well. In college football, highly touted coach Mel Tucker signed a 10-year $95 million extension after turning the Michigan State football team around after just one year. Just a few miles east, the prestigious Notre Dame decided to promote Marcus Freeman as head coach to the delight of returning players and the college football world. In the NBA G-League, the boundary continues to get pushed as Amber Nichols and Tori Miller made history as they became the first Black general managers to have their teams play each other. Nichols would further shake the room as she is only 29 years old and would be named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” for her impressive accomplishments.
When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked to comment on the league’s lack of diversity, he declined. Coaches Dungy and Tomlin believe he knows it is wrong but declines to acknowledge it because of the embarrassment it would cause the league. On the contrary, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver commented on the issue, saying, “There is a certain natural ebb and flow in the hiring and firing frankly of coaches, but the number of Black coaches is too low right now.” Silver made this statement at the start of the 2020 Finals, and months later, the NBA filled seven of its eight head coaching positions with Black coaches.
This is not a case of mere coincidence but waking up and smelling the coffee in front of you. The NFL has a history and continuance of a race problem. Situations of shunning and giving the cold shoulder to Black quarterbacks date back to the days of James “Shack” Harris, Joe Gilliam, and Warren Moon to the current times of Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, and Teddy Bridgewater. Years of fighting the narrative that “Black quarterbacks aren’t smart enough” or “Need to switch positions.” The transition from the field to the sidelines is clear evidence of the double-standard held against Black coaches. Hence, the constant firings after a winning record, but the white counterparts pass. And no, this is not the case for all hirings and firings, but its occurrences stick out like a sore thumb.
In 2021, diversity policies were put in place, but the NFL finds itself digging a deeper hole with the issue of “race-norming.” New lawsuits have been filed claiming testing suggests Black athletes start with worse cognitive functioning than whites based purely on their race, making it hard to prove a deficit due to football and injury. Because of this, a number of former Black athletes were denied rewards of the $1 billion NFL concussion settlement but would have qualified if they were white. 203 players filled settlements with an average of $700,000. In addition, 265 athletes with early-stage Dementia filed another lawsuit. The NFL denied both.
This year, leaked emails exposed the world to the horrid racist and sexist remarks of Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden during its “End Racism” campaign. And who can forget the civil war that started after Colin Kaepernick and his national anthem Protests? Whenever a situation that deals with race occurs, the NFL world creates a fault line, yet they unite in leagues like the NBA and WNBA. So, why is the NFL behind the curb and what will it take for the NFL to catch up? In the words of Tony Dungy, “I’m not making this a race issue; race is an issue.”