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Without players’ protest, NFL won’t be pressured into hiring black coaches

If there is no pressure, there won’t be progress

Although the NFL season is almost over, there is unfinished business and a bad taste left in many of our mouths by a hiring cycle in which not one black head coach was hired.

What was striking about this round of nonhires was the brazenly unrepentant nature of the hiring. The tone was one of: “We don’t have to hire African Americans and you can’t make us.”

  • The New York Giants hired Joe Judge, with no head coaching experience and eight seasons with the New England Patriots as a special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach.
  • The Dallas Cowboys brought in Marvin Lewis to satisfy Rooney Rule requirements, then hired Mike McCarthy.
  • Washington hired Ron Rivera, the lone minority candidate hired in 2020.
  • Matt Rhule, a former college head coach at Baylor, was hired by the Carolina Panthers.
  • The Cleveland Browns hired former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as its new head coach.

At a time when the NFL continues to be driven by young black players, the league has effectively created a lucrative welfare state for white coaches. They are hired, fired, reabsorbed and reassigned. They bide their time, then get another head job and hire staffs of largely white assistant coaches, which sets diversity efforts back generations.

This goes on in the executive suite as well, creating a regressive dynamic in which what has been a largely black labor force for the last 30 years has failed to produce a robust African American head coach and front-office presence.

How can this be reversed?

Until active players raise their voices in indignation and outrage, there will be no motivation for owners to do better.

Over the last few months, there have been suggestions made by an array of concerned parties that included arranging meetings with sympathetic team owners, sitting with the NFL commissioner and convening a panel of minority coaches and executives to oversee the hiring process.

What we learned about the NFL from Colin Kaepernick is that the one thing that will light a fire under multibillionaire team owners is a potential loss of sponsors and bad publicity.

They hate to be embarrassed and they do fear unified pushback by this largely black labor force.

When it comes to putting pressure on NFL owners, there is no silver bullet, but at the very least active players must be part of the conversations — and the protest — if it comes to that.

I have covered NFL-vs.-players labor disputes. The only time I’ve seen owners care — and potentially cave — was when NFL players began to kneel and raise their fists during the playing of the national anthem.

Those protests got the attention of team owners because it got the attention of the White House, which accused team owners of losing control of their players.

Which they had.

Meetings were convened, threats were issued, promises were made. In one of the most bizarre spectacles of all, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined Cowboys players in taking a knee and locking arms before the playing of the national anthem and standing at attention while the anthem was played.

In Miami, Steve Ross, the Miami Dolphins owner, convened a social justice initiative called R.I.S.E., though some board members resigned after Ross hosted a fundraiser for President Donald Trump.

But Ross put his influence where his mouth was and hired Brian Flores as the Dolphins head coach and made Chris Grier the team’s general manager.

None of this would have happened without players raising their voices and taking a stand.

When it comes to putting pressure on NFL owners, there is no silver bullet, but at the very least active players must be part of the conversations — and the protest — if it comes to that.

Team owners and executives have to know that players are watching. The assumption is often that “we pay you to tote that barge, lift that bale and play for whomever we tell you to play for.”

“We talk about those types of things. It’s nothing negative, but we wonder how does a special teams coach jump up that high.” — Titans cornerback Tramaine Brock Sr.

It’s possible that the hiring of black head coaches might not be an issue that many players care about — until they’re out of football, want to join the coaching fraternity and find themselves marginalized and locked out.

On Sunday, I asked the Titans cornerback Tramaine Brock Sr., a 10-year NFL veteran, if players paid attention to these hires and if he thought players speaking up might be helpful.

“We pay attention to it,” he said. “We pay attention more of who was getting hired, rather than who’s not getting hired. We see it and talk about it.”

Brock pointed out the elevation of Judge from Patriots special team coordinator to head coach of the New York Giants.

“We talk about those types of things,” he added. “It’s nothing negative, but we wonder how does a special teams coach jump up that high.”

Would it make a difference if players raised their voices? “Everybody’s going to have an opinion,” he said. “If we do say something, it can go either way: It could go for bad, it could go for good. Most guys just stay in their place, stay in their lane and just focus on what they focus on. We’ve got to worry about winning games.”

Kansas Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens likely reflects a prevailing mentality, especially among younger players, of concentrating on the here and now. “I stay in the moment, that’s how I was raised, that’s how I was coached,” he said.

Hitchens is 27 years old, a veteran of six NFL seasons. When I asked him about coaching aspirations, Hitchens said that was way too far in the future. “I’m just so focused on the moment, with all these things going on, I can’t be focusing on what I’m doing next year or what am I setting myself up for. I focus on the moment. That’s how you stay in this league for a long time.”

Indeed.

From left to right: Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Bernice King, CEO of The King Center, talk together during a tour of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and the center on Jan. 31, 2019.

Diwang Valdez for The Undefeated

Chiefs linebacker Terrell Suggs has been in the NFL for 17 seasons. Asked if players’ voices could compel team owners to take black candidates more seriously, Suggs said, “There’s nothing players can do. It’s out of your hands.” But Suggs did say that a hiring blackout, like the one we just observed, does not go unnoticed. “You definitely pay attention to it,” he said.

Last year this time in the lead-up to Super Bowl LII, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Browns co-owner Dee Haslam met at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They talked about equality, fairness, inclusion and embraced Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about the importance on focusing on the content of character, not the color of one’s skin.

As we approach Super Bowl LIV in Miami, I’m thinking of Frederick Douglass’ more sobering dictum: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

When it comes to compelling NFL team owners to hire black head coaches, you can add: If there is no pressure, there is also no progress.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.