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Diversity in the NFL

Kevin M. Yurkerwich

The National Football League has implemented important policies in the last few years designed to promote minority head coaches throughout the league. For a league that has been dominated for the past two decades by great black athletes, to have so few black coaches is appalling. The current change in policy is the first step in the right direction.

Heading into this NFL off season there had only been eight black head coaches in the NFL out of the hundreds of coaches in the history of the game: Fritz Pollard, Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards, Marvin Lewis, and Terry Robiskie. That is a remarkable statistic when you consider that the league is made up of 50 to 75 percent black players. If the college game is any indication of the future of the NFL, then the league will continue to be comprised mainly of great black athletes, a la Michael Vick.

Of the black players, there are only a handful of black quarterbacks -- highlighted by Vick, Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair. This fall on NFL Countdown, the controversial Rush Limbaugh claimed that Donovan McNabb was an average quarterback and the media tried to present him as a great quarterback because he was black. Donovan has been proclaimed as a great quarterback because he can beat you from within the pocket or scramble for yards outside of the pocket. The media may lose sight of his inaccurate, average throwing arm, but Limbaugh misunderstands this as a consequence of his skin color, not his tremendous athletic ability.

A few months ago, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent a memo to NFL teams requiring them to interview at least one black candidate in person and demanding that the owners be personally involved in the process. This policy is a progressive step in the right direction. Qualified black candidates will now be provided with the opportunity to interview for head coaching vacancies.

The league’s policy has quickly borne fruit as two black coaches, Lovie Smith and Dennis Green, were hired in January. Smith and Green now accompany Dungy, Lewis, and Edwards as five current black head coaches. Additionally, Edwards was recently given a two year contract extension to stay with the New York Jets through 2007. The league now has more black head coaches than it has ever had, but there are some complaints that the system is inflexible with regard to some issues.

Detroit Lions’ president Matt Millen was fined $200,000 after he failed to interview a minority candidate. The five minority candidates he contacted to interview rebuffed him, recognizing the Lions outspoken interest in Steve Mariucci. After Mariucci was brought in as the new head coach of the Lions, the league laid down the heavy fine on Millen. The NFL warned that the next offender of the league’s policy would be charged $500,000.

While demanding minority candidates be interviewed allows candidates the opportunity to present their skills, some candidates feel they are belittled and just used as a token black candidate. Former player Deacon Jones recognized this problem in a Fox News interview when he said, “You can’t force nobody to interview me. What is that going to do? You can interview me and two other blacks ... (and believe) I’ve done my job. I’ve interviewed the blacks.” Supporters of the policy believe that it is beneficial in the long run since minority candidates who are interviewed frequently have the ability to tune their interview skills and are presented with more opportunities to land head coaching jobs.

Whether you believe in the system or not, the results are undeniable. The five current black head coaches are more then there have ever been in the NFL. There are more and more minority assistant coaches in the NFL every year. An example of a great assistant coach is the Patriots defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, who will probably land a head coaching job in the next year or so. The league is moving in the right direction.

This experiment in NFL hiring policies might have the potential to also help to balance out the number of minority coaches at the college football level. There are important problems in college football. When was the last time you saw two black college coaches square off against each other at the college level? If you remember correctly, it was Ty Willingham at Notre Dame against Michigan State’s Bobby Williams. Recently Williams was fired and the only other three black head coaches in the college ranks are San Jose State's Fitz Hill, New Mexico State's Tony Samuel, and Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom. Of the 115 major division one college football programs there are only four black head coaches -- that’s three and a half percent for all you Course XVIII majors out there. How are NFL coaches going to develop out of the college ranks if there are only four black collegiate head coaches? Moreover, there are only 12 minority assistant coaches at those 115 schools whose teams are made up of 43 percent black players. While the NCAA does not possess the power of the NFL to heavily fine schools for not seriously considering minority candidates, it too must reconcile this problem. The NCAA ought to use its ability to reduce the number of scholarships from schools to promote the growth of black head coaches at the collegiate level.

Although minority hirings at the college level are less of an issue to the media than the flaws associated with the Bowl Championship Series, both lingering problems have the potential to degrade a nation’s passion for football.