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NFL, MEAC and SWAC begin new initiative to boost off-the-field football careers

Executives spoke candidly about what it takes to land a job in the league and with teams

On Dec. 16, 80 sports management students and athletic department administrators from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) walked into a hall at the Omni Hotel in downtown Atlanta for the inaugural NFL Careers in Football Forum.

The students and staff members in town for Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl weekend represented 23 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the MEAC and SWAC. They were seated before some of the NFL’s most successful executives and were given a unique opportunity to ask questions and take notes during multiple panels during the day.

The forum was part of the weekend’s events that began with Strength of HBCUs, Impacting Pro Football Since 1948 — the latest NFL initiative developed to highlight and honor the impact HBCUs and their players have had on the game. The NFL intends to expand the league’s dedication to diversity and ensure students and administrators like those in attendance have actual opportunities to work for the league and its clubs.

According to a 2016 report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NFL received an A grade for its racial hiring practices with a score of 91.1 percent, two percentage points lower than its all-time mark of 93.1 percent last year. In 2014, there were 14 people of color at or above the vice president level. In 2015, the numbers jumped to 21 and increased to 24 in 2016.

Participants spent a day listening to leaders who hold various positions in the NFL with various teams, each conveying the strong message that there’s more to the NFL than just suiting up for a game on Sundays.

“I think [the NFL] uses forums like this to show, too, that there are a lot of opportunities for young people in sports beyond just the NFL,” said Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay. “Sports present a lot of opportunities, much more so than 15, 20 years ago, so I think it’s nice to see that many young people have an interest in the NFL. I think it’ll be nicer when I see all those young people get jobs somewhere in sports.”

In the first session of the afternoon, NFL ambassador and speaker Freddie Scott II began with an icebreaker, going around the room and asking students and staff members what they were most excited about before panelists McKay and Troy Vincent, a former NFL cornerback who is the league’s executive vice president of football operations, took their places center stage. Many students concluded with the same answer: to learn more about the hundreds of jobs the NFL has to offer off the field.

The two men spoke to participants at length about their own careers in the NFL, and what they hope the future of NFL careers will look like. They spoke honestly about their expectations and what they look for when hiring potential candidates, emphasizing the importance of why a person’s character, morality and work ethic will always outweigh what’s generally found on resumes.

“I think the most important attribute that I look for when I interview anybody, when I look at a resume is, ‘Is this person a teammate? Or does this person just think they belong ahead of the class?’ ” McKay said. “I love when people look at resumes and want to rate resumes based on GPA or based on class rankings. I want to make sure when you’re in the moment, you’re on a team. You understand how to support each other, you understand how to treat each other, you understand what culture is.”

“For me, I want to work with people that care,” Vincent later said. “The whole resume thing is part of the process. When I sit in front of you after having already done my research, I want to know where your heart is … I know what’s in your heart, I just need for you to articulate that.”

The men also offered valuable information about the importance of not sacrificing talent and skills for jobs that will only “get your foot in the door,” which will most likely never lead to a fulfilling career.

“I think it’s a trap door when people come in and tell you to just get your foot in the door,” Vincent said. “The business of sports is about relationships, who you know, staying in contact with them, but if you’ve studied journalism or medicine or engineering at these institutions, don’t compromise. Don’t compromise coming into a position that you’ve never done before because you think it’ll get your foot in the door and two years later, they’re going to hire you full time. Don’t do it.”

NFL Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams looked around the room at the NFL’s potential future employees. As a graduate of the historically black Southern University who went on to have a successful 14-year Hall of Fame career as a defensive back in the NFL, Williams knows what it’s like to be where the participants are now.

The day before the Celebration Bowl, Williams spoke to players from Grambling State University and North Carolina Central University — the SWAC and MEAC champions who played each other for the HBCU national championship — about working on being the best versions of themselves and taking advantage of the opportunities and education being offered at their HBCUs.

“I first want all of these young men to know don’t ever doubt yourself, what you’re capable of doing and don’t limit yourself because of where you are,” Williams said. “I’ve played at this level of the NFL and I know these guys who come from all the major universities. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t exposed to the bigger schools, it was them believing and making decisions at the institutions — whether Southern, Grambling, North Carolina Central — that I’m going to do my best where I am. If you do that and you shine bright at that level, the NFL will find you to give you opportunities.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.