At the beginning of the 2022 season, there were only three Black head coaches in the NFL, whose players are an estimated 60% African American. Following the end of the regular season Jan. 9, now the number is down to just two.
That’s because the Houston Texans fired Lovie Smith, a coach who once took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, just one season after he was hired, when the team had finished with 3 wins, 13 losses and one tie (3-13-1).
The two remaining African American coaches are the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles. Three other head coaches, Ron Rivera (Washington Commanders), Robert Saleh (New York Jets) and Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins) are of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, Lebanese descent, and biracial, respectively.
The firing of Smith, after just one season, should be viewed within a broader social context of racial disparity. The NFL was founded in 1920. Fritz Pollard, in 1921, became the first Black coach. Some 68 years later, Art Shell became the second Black head coach in the NFL, for the then-Oakland Raiders. Only 24% of head coaches in the 100+ year history of the League have been Black, while 99.9% of the billionaire NFL owners have been white.
A damning report released on Sept. 21, 2022, by the Washington Post showed data confirming that Black coaches are twice as likely to be fired compared to white coaches, if their teams have either a winning record or stay even.
The report states that while Black head coaches perform on the same level as white coaches, they have faced a more difficult path toward becoming head coaches than their white counterparts. Black coaches have had to serve significantly longer terms as mid-level assistants, are more likely to be given interim jobs than full-time coaches and are held to a higher standard when it comes to keeping their jobs.
On Feb. 1, 2022, Brian Flores, who is Black and Honduran — was fired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Flores then filed a class action lawsuit in a New York federal court charging the NFL with racial discrimination in hiring practices.
An introduction to the lawsuit stated, “As described in this Class Action Complaint, the NFL remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers. Rules have been implemented, promises made — but nothing has changed. In fact, the racial discrimination has only been made worse by the NFL’s disingenuous commitment to social equity.” (workers.org/2022/02/61578/)
Since that lawsuit was filed, the situation for hiring Black head coaches has gotten even worse. This, even though in March 2022, the NFL codified an expansion of the “Rooney Rule.” This rule requires two interviews with candidates of color, a group expanded to include women, and a requirement for every staff to include an assistant coach for offense who is a person of color or a woman.
In 2003, the Rooney Rule was established to guarantee that every NFL owner interview at least one “minority” candidate for a head coaching or front office job. That rule has been weakened or outright ignored, leading to a dismal lack of Black head coaches in the most popular U.S. professional sport — football, a sport that makes billions of dollars in profits for its owners off the backs of the players.
In this case of injustice toward Black coaches, an important lesson on this MLK holiday should be that empty promises won’t help. It will take direct intervention — especially by the players — to force the majority white owners to put into effect long-term affirmative action policies.