Will the NFL’s radical plan to increase minority hires work?
Proposal includes improving draft picks to address the league’s diversity issue
In February, The Undefeated spoke with more than 20 current and former black NFL player-personnel executives and coaches to identify ways to improve inclusive hiring at the club level. Among the most popular ideas was using draft picks to reward teams at the forefront of increasing minority hiring, while punishing clubs that are not.
During Tuesday’s virtual league meeting, owners are expected to vote on a proposal submitted by the NFL’s diversity committee to improve draft picks for teams that hire minority candidates as head coaches or general managers. For the proposal to pass, 24 of the NFL’s 32 clubs would have to vote in favor of it.
In the last three hiring cycles, there have been 20 head coach openings 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. With that backdrop, the league could add a tool that would potentially persuade owners to expand their thinking about hiring.
But here’s the problem: It’s highly doubtful the tool, as proposed, would work effectively.
Under the proposal first reported by NFL.com, a team could improve its third-round draft selection by as much as 16 picks – moving up 10 spots for hiring a candidate of color as a general manager, or an equivalent-level position, and six spots for hiring a head coach of color in the draft preceding the second season of the new hires.
As several current and former black club officials told The Undefeated on Friday, anyone who understands how hiring works in the NFL knows the potential to move up in the third round, or even in some situations into the second round, won’t make a dent in a problem that continues to put the league in an awful light.
Last season, the NFL commemorated its 100th season. Only once in the league’s history has a team hired both a general manager of color and head coach of color during the same hiring cycle. In 2016, the Cleveland Browns promoted Sashi Brown to the de facto general manager role and hired Hue Jackson as head coach. In other words, the odds are slim that the biggest benefit under the proposal will take effect — which indicates a lot about the true potential impact of the plan. There’s just not enough incentive on the table to substantively alter the hiring landscape.
Generally, NFL owners don’t merely like the general managers and head coaches they hire. They love them. In a multibillion-dollar industry, they have to. Early in the hiring process, owners typically lock in on their top candidates to fill the most important roles in football operations, ignoring other potential candidates while moving swiftly to close deals with “their guys.” That’s why the Rooney Rule, even in its recently revised form, is still outdated. Repeatedly, owners have focused on white candidates for both general manager and head coach positions, only interviewing candidates of color to comply with the Rooney Rule. Consider what occurred when the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals had their most recent openings.
The Rams were blown away by Sean McVay, then Washington’s offensive coordinator, and effectively ended their search after his initial interview. Two years later, the Cardinals were smitten by former college head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The chance to move higher in the third round of the draft down the road wouldn’t have altered the plans of either team, said league officials who spoke to The Undefeated. The situation plays out much more like that — with overwhelming favorites identified early on — than the emergence of a two- or three-person race that goes down to the wire, in which case, the potential carrot of improving on a midround pick might spur owners to move in one direction or another.
Now, if some owners had the ability to potentially improve their draft slots in the first round, well, that could be a game-changer because of how much teams value and covet first-round picks. And that’s precisely why the draft-pick proposal focuses on the third round.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his top lieutenants know their audience. Goodell likely surmised there was as much of a chance of 24 owners approving a proposal that would tie high-round picks to inclusive hiring as there would be of his employers giving Colin Kaepernick a humanitarian award. Likewise, stripping teams of picks if they ignore the league office’s inclusion efforts, which executives and coaches proposed in interviews with The Undefeated, isn’t on the table, either. Owners won’t punish themselves for making decisions that have resulted in horrible optics for the league. Bottom line, black executives and coaches believe, it will be impossible for Goodell to effectuate the change they believe he truly wants without a tool that holds owners accountable for failing to do the right thing.
Make no mistake, though, even with the proposal’s shortcomings, Goodell is endorsing a radical plan. Fact is, in the NFL, draft picks are considered sacrosanct.
Additionally, no professional sports league has linked inclusive hiring with drafting players. The very idea is controversial, and it figures to spark heated debate throughout the game in the run-up to Tuesday’s expected vote. If the proposal is approved, the league could face backlash from fans who might view the concept as a form of affirmative action.
Since February, high-ranking officials in the league office and leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of inclusive hiring, have had ongoing discussions, focusing on ways to address the hiring crisis. On both sides of the table, there’s consensus that major action must occur in an effort to move the needle. Unfortunately, the new proposal won’t do it.