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NFL’s diversity plan is better than nothing, but here’s why it’s not enough

How will things improve if there’s no mechanism to get owners to comply?

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell understands the awful state of inclusive hiring at the club level is a blight on professional sports’ most successful league. His fingerprints are all over the multipronged plan approved Tuesday that will attempt to address the situation. The problem is, the NFL continues to stumble in its efforts to make things right, or at least better, on a matter that should be of great importance to owners.

During a virtual meeting, owners tabled the plan’s centerpiece — a controversial and flawed proposal that would improve the draft position for teams that hire minority candidates as head coaches or general managers. The proposal, first reported by NFL.com, was roundly criticized from all corners of the game because it appeared to be an affirmative action program, and because of the unlikelihood it would effect positive change in a league that enters the upcoming season with only four head coaches of color and two black general managers.

There will be more discussion about what was shelved, Goodell said during a conference call with reporters, and the league could move to “try to strengthen it.” Now that the draft-pick proposal has been put on the shelf at least temporarily, though, Goodell should leave it there permanently. As one NFL club executive told The Undefeated, it’s “the worst of both worlds: It won’t improve anything, and all the people against it [inclusive hiring] will just say it’s affirmative action. How will anyone hired under this plan get any respect within the building?”

In the run-up to the meeting, Hall of Famer Tony Dungy was among a group of former and current black head coaches who came out strongly against the concept. When the most revered African American head coach in NFL history is against the key element of a proposal to help coaches of color, well, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. If the NFL does have future talks about incentivizing doing the right thing with regard to hiring, the draft-pick proposal shouldn’t be a part of the conversation.

As for the rest of the plan, Goodell and Art Rooney II, chairman of the NFL’s diversity workplace committee, designed a comprehensive strategy intended to substantively improve the league’s overall hiring culture in both football and business operations. Following three consecutive hiring cycles in which there were a total of 20 openings for head coaches and only one coach of color was hired in each cycle, Goodell and Rooney engaged in intense discussions with Rod Graves, who, as executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, leads the independent group that advises the league on matters of diversity.

The result of their meetings, in person and virtually, is the most aggressive hiring initiatives owners have approved during the history of a league that just commemorated its 100th season.

“A big step was taken yesterday toward leveling the playing field for People of Color as coaches and executives in the NFL,” Graves wrote in a text message to The Undefeated. “The comprehensive package to address the lack of diversity in leadership was the most I’ve seen since I started my career in the League. The Commissioner should be commended for his leadership.”

Goodell knows there’s much more ground to cover.

“We’re not satisfied where we are. We know we should and can do better,” the commissioner said. “And that’s why this package of initiatives is very significant. Some are focused on shorter-term benefits or results, potentially. Others are focused on midterm or long-term changes that we think will produce results, but we think that’s the kind of approach [that’s needed]. There’s no single solution to this. It’s a matter of a number of initiatives that we think ultimately are gonna lead to better results.”

Several black NFL executives and coaches interviewed by The Undefeated after Tuesday’s vote aren’t so sure.

Generally speaking, the league’s employees of color welcome any efforts to level the playing field, the executives and coaches said, but there’s no enforcement mechanism in the plan, which takes effect at the end of the calendar year. There’s nothing to hold owners accountable if little changes, either in the front office or at the highest rungs of the coaching ladder, in a league with an on-field workforce that’s nearly 70% black.

Even the part of the plan that removes restrictions on position coaches to interview for coordinator jobs was met with skepticism by some executives and coaches, the implication being that all that prevented assistants of color from climbing the assistant ranks was restrictive contract verbiage. Theoretically, African American running back coaches should soon be in hot demand for offensive play-caller gigs. On the other hand, perhaps the NFL has posted speed limit signs on a stretch of land where there is no road. If one isn’t wanted for a job, it doesn’t matter if one is free to pursue it.

What’s more likely to happen, the executives and coaches said, is that young, white “boy-genius” position coaches, especially those whose families have deep roots in the game, will jump from being position coaches to coordinators. If the forthcoming new rules had been in effect for years, Sean McVay, who served as Washington’s tight ends coach before becoming its offensive coordinator, might have received offers to become a play-caller for other teams. That wouldn’t exactly have been a boon to inclusive hiring.

Also conspicuously absent from the plan is any mention of the league’s rampant nepotism problem. Too often, executives and coaches hire their sons, sons of their mentors and sons of their friends. There are only so many jobs, and rarely are executives and coaches of color included on the family plan. That brings us back to NFL owners.

For so long, the billionaires for whom Goodell works have ignored qualified candidates of color while filling positions to run their franchises. And that wasn’t by happenstance.

Now, Goodell is trying to drag owners to someplace new and, as evidenced by the draft-pick proposal, he’s willing to try just about anything to finally get there. However, without a tool to persuade his bosses to comply, he’ll be doing it with one arm tied behind his back.

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