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Black NFL officials respond to Vic Fangio’s comments: ‘It was a disgrace’

The Broncos’ coach doesn’t see racism in the NFL, but others in the league do

Current and former black NFL officials and league observers blasted Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio on Wednesday for saying he doesn’t “see racism at all in the NFL.”

Joining the national discussion about race in the aftermath of the horrific killing of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis, Fangio told reporters he doesn’t see discrimination or racism as problems overall in a league that recently made significant changes to the Rooney Rule because of its awful record in inclusive hiring in both football and business operations at the club level.

“I think our problems in the NFL along those lines are minimal. We’re a league of meritocracy. You earn what you get, you get what you earn. I don’t see racism at all in the NFL, I don’t see discrimination in the NFL,” Fangio told reporters Tuesday when asked about his experiences in the league over the past four decades. “We all live together, joined as one, for one common goal, and we all intermingle and mix tremendously. If society reflected an NFL team, we’d all be great.”

The comments drew widespread criticism, with many black executives and coaches expressing disbelief and anger in phone interviews and text exchanges with The Undefeated. The Broncos did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday afternoon, Fangio apologized: “After reflecting on my comments yesterday and listening to the players this morning, I realize what I said regarding racism and discrimination in the NFL was wrong.”

But the damage had already been done.

Fangio just doesn’t get it, according to Rod Graves, who leads the independent group that advises the NFL on diversity matters.

“Sadly, Coach Fangio’s statement reveals a denial of what is taking place in the National Football League,” Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and formerly both an NFL general manager and high-ranking league official, wrote in a text.

“Martin Luther King Jr. referred to it as sincere ignorance and described it as dangerous. Coach Fangio’s statement is a revelation of the insensitivity that exists in the hallways of NFL leadership.”

There have been 20 head coach openings in the last three hiring cycles, but only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle. Entering the 2020 season, the league will only have four minority head coaches. The NFL has only two African American general managers and has never had a black team president.

Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly has said the league must do better. And Goodell’s fingerprints are all over a multipronged plan approved May 19, which he hopes will improve a situation that has put the league in an awful light. In making his comments, Fangio chose to ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Washington executive Doug Williams said.

“When I read what he said, I actually thought it was a disgrace,” said Williams, the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl and be selected the game’s MVP. “I don’t know Vic Fangio at all, but somewhere along the line, Vic is not being real with himself. He’s kind of in the same boat that a whole lot of other people are: They don’t want to see it.

“And even with this whole thing going on after what happened with George Floyd, there are still people who don’t want to be honest that there’s a problem. I guess when you become a head coach at the stage of his life, it’s kind of tough for him, and people like him, to say that there’s something that holds other [qualified] people back, even though the evidence is all around us. Let me tell you something: Vic Fangio doesn’t know there’s a problem, but the league knows there’s a problem.”

Goodell is working to build trust with the NFL’s frustrated black executives and coaches, and Fangio’s comments make the commissioner’s task more difficult, said N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University.

“The league is in the most substantial equal opportunity crises that it has seen in nearly two decades,” said Duru, author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.

“Just weeks ago, the Rooney Rule was expanded. And even more dramatic proposals were made, indicating even the league’s recognition that meritocracy does not rule. And for an individual head coach to suggest that it does … it’s just very out of touch.”

Some executives and coaches drew a distinction between what occurs on the field and what happens in the corridors of power in the NFL overall, saying the former is generally a meritocracy. “But he didn’t say the locker room or the field,” Williams added. “He said there’s no racism or discrimination in the NFL. For me, that’s a very tough pill to swallow. And that’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people around the league.”

Because of Fangio’s standing within the game, as one of only 32 head coaches, his comments could carry weight with many, Duru said. And that’s the problem.

“It’s discouraging in two ways. First, it’s discouraging because if guys at his level don’t get it, then there’s a lot more work that has to be done,” Duru said. “Secondly, it’s discouraging because people might actually believe him and also adopt that view. That only makes the problem worse.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.