Why the Browns’ firing of Sashi Brown is a problem
The number of black general managers is headed in the wrong direction
No credible argument can be made against the firing of Sashi Brown as Cleveland Browns executive vice president of football operations. He was let go Thursday after an absolutely brutal two-year stretch in charge of the team’s personnel department. With Brown having a key role in picking players, Cleveland is 1-27, including 0-12 this season. It was only a matter of time before he became a former Browns executive.
But here’s the problem: Brown’s dismissal leaves only four African-American general managers on the NFL’s 32 teams. His successor in Cleveland didn’t increase the total. The team on Thursday announced the hiring of John Dorsey, who formerly was the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs. Dorsey is white.
In an overwhelmingly African-American league, in which almost 70 percent of the players are black, it’s simply unacceptable that so few black people hold the top positions in football operations. And after an awful week for diversity in the front office, the numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
Brown’s firing follows the ouster Monday of Jerry Reese, the longtime New York Giants general manager who helped the team win two Super Bowl championships. The remaining black general managers are Rick Smith (Houston Texans), Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore Ravens), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland Raiders) and Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins). At the end of last season, the NFL had seven black general managers. On April 30, the Buffalo Bills fired Doug Whaley. Then Reese and Brown were let go this week.
The Browns announced that head coach Hue Jackson, who’s also black, will remain in his position and return in 2018. This season, the NFL has eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 as the most it has had in any season, including seven of whom who are African-American. Few head coaches, however, wield as much influence as general managers do within organizations. Black folks are still being blocked from the biggest levers of power in the game.
The Rooney Rule, in place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one candidate of color for those jobs. There’s no doubt that the rule — named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — has had a positive overall impact on changing the NFL’s culture, although how much it has helped and whether it needs to be modified is a conversation worth having.
Privately, some young black player-personnel employees have expressed frustration about the rule, saying sham interviews often occur. If there are owners who only meet with African-Americans to fulfill the rule’s requirement, without truly considering them as candidates to run their teams, substantially increasing representation of color among general managers obviously won’t occur anytime soon.
When the Giants promoted Reese, who previously served as the team’s director of player personnel for four years, to general manager in 2007, he became only the third black general manager in NFL history. In 2002, Baltimore elevated Newsome to his position. It took four more years for Smith to join the list, in 2006. That wasn’t good enough back then. And it’s definitely not good enough now during the age of a new civil rights movement.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick changed the game by first sitting and then kneeling to shine a light on racial injustice. Kaepernick inspired other players to demonstrate during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” prompting the commissioner’s office to engage players in discussing social issues that are important to African-American communities. After months of contentious negotiations, the result is an unprecedented agreement in which the NFL has committed $89 million over seven years to fund projects dealing with criminal justice reform, law enforcement/community relations and education.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who for months shepherded the process while overcoming numerous obstacles, pushed to reach an agreement in principle, which owners must still vote to ratify, because he believed it was the right thing to do, multiple people close to the process told ESPN. Goodell walked a tightrope, pushing back against hard-line owners such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, who vowed to bench any player who protests.
Now that his new contract is done, Goodell should tackle another massive challenge: adding more teeth to the Rooney Rule to bolster diversity from the front office to the field. Goodell could again enlist the help of Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, who rode shotgun on hammering out the recent agreement with players. Surely those two could come up with something better than what the rule offers in its current form.
The fact is, Brown and Reese picked the talent for teams that are in disarray. They didn’t deserve to remain in general manager chairs. But there are other African-Americans out there who should occupy them. All they need is a chance.