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The NFL has a hiring problem, so look to the top

The league, in Roger Goodell’s 12th year, continues to fall woefully short in finding people of color to fill key decision-making positions from the front office to the field

MINNEAPOLIS — When Roger Goodell became commissioner in 2006, the NFL had only seven head coaches of color. Today it has only eight.

When Goodell took office, there were only four African-American general managers. Today, there are only three, two of whom have authority in the decision-making process.

And when Goodell began charting the course of professional sports’ most successful league, none of its 32 clubs had a black president. The number still stands at zero.

See where we’re going here?

In Goodell’s 12th year at the top, the NFL continues to fall woefully short in hiring people of color to fill key decision-making positions from the front office to the field. Despite long-standing programs intended to increase diversity, such as the Rooney Rule and internships for minority coaches, there has been no appreciable change in the numbers Goodell inherited. And with another hiring cycle all but completed, the landscape entering the 2018 league year will be even whiter than it was during the previous one.

Goodell maintains that the league is committed to inclusive hiring across the board, making the numbers troubling. Then consider the fact that the NFL is an overwhelmingly African-American league in which almost 70 percent of the players are black, and it’s clear: The commissioner has some explaining to do.

Responding to a question from my colleague Jim Trotter about the league’s failure, Goodell unsuccessfully attempted to defend the indefensible at his annual pre-Super Bowl news conference on Wednesday. After Trotter laid out the situation, Goodell trumpeted “not only the Rooney Rule, but efforts we have to train and give experience to coaches [and] executives to enhance their careers is something that we’ve put a great deal of focus on and I think has been successful.”

OK. When one is confronted with just a general question on an uncomfortable topic, sticking with the talking points is fine. Problem was, Trotter explained in detail that, under Goodell’s stewardship, minority representation at the upper levels of football operations has been essentially stagnant.

The Rooney Rule, which mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate, has been in place since 2003 for head coaches. It was expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions. The NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship is in its 30th year. And yet with those tools as well as other league-backed initiatives through the years designed to foster a more enlightened hiring culture, the NFL remains largely stuck in neutral.

Consider what occurred this hiring cycle.

The Cleveland Browns and New York Giants fired African-American general managers. Their successors are white. After his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith, who’s also black, took a leave of absence. On the general manager level, things are trending in the wrong direction.

Then there’s the head coaching situation.

The NFL began the season with eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 as the most it has had in any season, including seven African-Americans. On Jan. 1, the Detroit Lions fired Jim Caldwell. The number of coaches of color returned to eight after the Arizona Cardinals hired Steve Wilks, formerly the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator, on Jan. 22. As for the other six openings for head coaches, minorities were shut out.

After the Super Bowl, New England Patriots coordinators will fill the remaining jobs: Offensive playcaller Josh McDaniels is headed to the Indianapolis Colts, and the Lions have picked defensive playcaller Matt Patricia to lead them. Considering the Patriots’ incredible success under head coach Bill Belichick, it’s not surprising that his top lieutenants keep getting tapped for the biggest gigs.

On the other hand, one could understand how black coaches would be frustrated with having so few opportunities to move up when McDaniels already has had one shot. The Denver Broncos hired McDaniels in 2009. He was fired after Week 13 in 2010, leaving the franchise with an 11-19 record. Now, he’s getting another chance.

McDaniels also benefits from being an offensive coach during an era in which owners prefer to pick from that side of the ball to fill top openings. A bigger pool of candidates of color on offense is needed, Goodell acknowledged.

“What we need to do is to continue to work on developing that pipeline, getting the right kind of coaches with the right kind of experience that teams want to hire as head coaches,” he said. “The trend now is offensive coaches.

“We need to work to get more offensive coaches in a position, African-Americans, that have offensive coordinator, quarterback coach experience [so owners] will see them as the right kind of candidates. They’re there. They’re great coaches. We have to make sure we continue to give exposure for them and make sure they get the opportunities.”

Of course, exposure alone won’t matter much if the league fails to enforce the Rooney Rule, as it did in the Oakland Raiders’ rehiring of Jon Gruden. The Raiders blatantly violated the spirit of the rule and the league chose to look away. Even the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps oversee compliance of the rule, broke with the NFL and eventually called out the Raiders.

On Wednesday, Goodell doubled down on the league’s position. “There was a full investigation of that [the Raiders’ conduct] by our staff,” he said. “They went through it in great detail. They spoke to every one of the participants to make sure that we checked the facts and that it was actually in compliance with the Rooney Rule.”

Whatever.

Bottom line, the league isn’t getting it done with regard to minority hiring. And in trying to assess why something isn’t working, one should always start at the top.

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