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San Diego Chargers vs Oakland Raiders - September 11, 2006

Is the NFL’s head coaching situation actually evidence of racism?

You decide

Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

For the NFL, it seems, increasingly, that one of the well-worn rituals among a segment of the talking heads and the media covering the league is to wait eagerly at the end of the season for the pink slips to be doled out among - usually - underperforming head coaches and front office executives and to see who can be the quickest to hurl accusations of “racism” in the process.

It’s become reflexive, and it’s usually done with such a celerity that it couldn’t possibly have involved a thorough investigation into the possible root causes - beyond those of a win-loss record, of course - that might have led to the dismissals. But do these commentators have a point?

Let me begin by first saying, my perspective is that there’s nothing “essential” about race (or gender, or other demographic traits) when it comes to coaching NFL teams. That is, I’d expect anyone, given sufficient exposure, experience, and aptitude to be among the pool of people who could, potentially, be the head coach of an NFL team. Of course, the pool of people with those three things is vanishingly small, and there are only 32 slots to be filled at any given time.

But maybe the teams, or their ownership, are racists. After all, Mike Tomlin, Robert Saleh, and Ron Rivera are the only remaining minority head coaches in the league after the 2021 season, with Brian Flores and David Culley both recently let go.

With only three minority head coaches in the league, a question arose in my mind: Over time, how broad has the representation of minority head coaches in the NFL been? That is, how many franchises have ever had minority coaches at their helm.

So, as I am inclined to do, I dug into the data:

2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame Gold Jacket Dinner

The modern history of minority head coaches in the NFL

NFC East

Cowboys

Giants

Eagles - Ray Rhodes (29-34-1)

Washington - Ron Rivera (14-19), Terry Robiskie (1-2)

NFC South

Saints

Falcons - Raheem Morris (4-7)

Panthers - Ron Rivera (76-63-1)

Buccaneers - Tony Dungy (54-42); Lovie Smith (8-24); Raheem Morris (17-31)

NFC North

Vikings - Dennis Green (97-62); Leslie Frazier (21-32-1)

Bears - Lovie Smith (81-63)

Lions - Jim Caldwell (36-28)

Packers - Ray Rhodes (8-8)

NFC West

Cardinals - Dennis Green (16-32); Steve Wilks (3-13)

49ers - Mike Singletary (18-22)

Seahawks

Rams

AFC East

Dolphins - Brian Flores (24-25); Todd Bowles (2-1)

Bills - Anthony Lynn (0-1)

Patriots

Jets - Herm Edwards (39-41); Todd Bowles (24-40); Robert Saleh (4-13)

AFC South

Jaguars

Colts - Tony Dungy (85-27); Jim Caldwell (26-22)

Titans

Texans - Romeo Crennel (4-8); David Culley (4-13)

AFC North

Browns - Hue Jackson (3-36-1); Romeo Crennel (24-40); Terry Robiskie (1-4)

Bengals - Marvin Lewis (131-122-3)

Ravens

Steelers - Mike Tomlin (154-85-2)

AFC West

Chiefs - Herm Edwards (15-33); Romeo Crennel (4-15)

Chargers - Anthony Lynn (33-31)

Raiders - Art Shell (56-52); Hue Jackson (8-8)

Broncos - Vance Joseph (11-21)

Findings

So, of the 32 NFL teams, 23 of them (72%) have had at least one minority head coach over the course of the past 20-30 years. That’s not evidence that racism doesn’t exist in the NFL - surely some of it does - but it is evidence that “racism” isn’t a blocking objection for the lion’s share of the league in terms of hiring a head coach.

But let’s take a closer look at this group. Among the individuals here, there are two, who if time stopped right now, would either be in the Hall of Fame, or would be headed there. Tony Dungy, most famous for his time with the Colts, was inducted into the Hall in 2016. Mike Tomlin, who has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success with the Steelers, will surely be headed for Canton when his career is eventually over.

It should also be mentioned that Art Shell, long-time head coach of the Raiders, was inducted into the Hall in of Fame in 1989 as a player.

The collective record of this group is 1135-1100-9 (51%). Without the two Hall of Fame-caliber coaches, the collective record drops to 842-946-7 (47%), slightly below average.

At this point, I expect several exaltations of “that’s racist” to arise. And I’d have a hard time disagreeing. Evaluations of people based solely on their skin color or ethnic background, can, by their definition, be “racist.” They’re relying on a single variable and - in some cases - trying to assign causality to it. I’m not doing that here.

I’m merely illustrating that among the pool of minority head coaches who have served in the NFL, there are some excellent ones, some good ones, and some fairly inept ones, which I would expect would be the same pattern if the exercise were done for white head coaches. For every Bill Walsh, there are dozens of Jeff Fishers and Urban Meyers.

Conclusion

In closing, it’s not that I don’t think profound racism has existed in the NFL. It has, and I've written about it in the past. It’s that the modern NFL is one in which teams generally use all the tools at their disposal to be competitive and win games.

To an extent that is historically unprecedented, they also seem to recognize the value of - all other things being equal - having a diversity of staff among their coaching ranks and front offices. The league has even instituted granting compensatory draft picks to teams that do an effective job of advancing minority candidates, who are later picked up by other franchises.

My desire with this piece it to tamp down, and temper, the lazy, unreflective impulses to conduct a skin deep evaluation on matters that deserve a far more robust investigation, in the interest of social media attention or imagined “clout.”

I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Poll

Do you believe that "racism" is a significant impediment of the hiring and dismissal of minority head coaches in the NFL?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    I believe it exists, but that it’s not significant.
    (294 votes)
  • 41%
    I believe it exists, and that’s it’s significant.
    (491 votes)
  • 26%
    I don’t believe it exists.
    (312 votes)
  • 6%
    Is this "third rail" week on Hogs Haven?
    (75 votes)
1172 votes total Vote Now

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