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NFL Struggles To Find Coaches, General Managers Of Color

charamelody via Flickr

If the people who run football had their way, you’d see their game not in terms of a mere battle between offense and defense, but rather in the context of another game.

The metaphor is that the players are pieces on a giant grass-covered chess board and the coaches are master tacticians.

The two featured strategists at center stage in Sunday’s Super Bowl, Eric Bieniemy of Kansas City’s offense and Robert Saleh, San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, were at the helm of dynamic units that held even the casual observer in thrall.

Besides running high profile, high production groups, Saleh and Bieniemy had this in common: They’re men of color, Bienemy being African American and Saleh a Muslim.

One other thing: Neither could get an NFL head coaching job for the 2020 season.

They’re hardly alone. Only four of 32 NFL head coaching positions are currently filled by a person of color. And the four would have been three if the Washington team hadn’t hired Ron Rivera, a Hispanic, who had just been let go by Carolina.

As you drill down, the numbers become even worse. Nearly 70 percent of the league’s players are African American, but only three African American men are head coaches. Only two are general managers and there are no African American men at the team president level.

The situation has become so hideous that even Smilin’ Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, couldn’t wear a grin.

During his annual State of the NFL address this past week, Goodell was forced to admit that the league has to do something.

The not-so-funny thing is the NFL has supposedly tried to do something about the paucity of minority coaches and front office personnel.

In 2003, the league enacted something called the Rooney Rule, named for then Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The rule mandated that any team with a head coaching opening had to extend at least an interview to a qualified candidate of color.

Six years later, the rule was extended to cover front office positions. For a time, things seem to work. As recently as three years ago, eight NFL coaches were African American.

However, those numbers have tumbled dramatically. It appears that teams interview minorities to check off a box, then hire the white guy they really wanted all along.

Traditionally, it’s said the reason there are so few coaches of color is that they don’t possess the requisite experience. The flaw in that logic is that white coaches with similar limited experience are getting hired.

According to the website, the Athletic, in the last 10 hiring cycles, 26 head coaches with less than 10 years or less experience were hired. All but one of them was white. Thirty of the 33 youngest head coaches brought in during that span were white.

Goodell is going to have to impress upon his employers, the 32 team owners, that men like Eric Bieniemy and Robert Saleh deserve a chance to run their own chess boards. And if cajoling doesn’t work, punishment will have to suffice.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.