On June 10, several NFL stars posted a video on social media in response to the league’s written statement in the wake of George Floyd’s death, calling on the NFL to condemn racial injustice and support peaceful protests.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded with a surprising statement of his own, marking a shift in tone from the league’s initial reaction.
Goodell’s message to players: an apology and a pledge the league wants to be a part of fighting systemic racism in America.
Goodell’s statement raises important questions for players, fans, and league executives: what changes is the NFL willing to make, and what actions will the league take to improve equality?
For a sports league in which close to three quarters of its players are black, the NFL lacks representation in leadership roles. Of the 32 NFL head coaches, just four are minorities, down from a record-high of eight at the start of the 2018 season. The league has just two minority offensive coordinators, a coaching position that has proved to be a prerequisite to becoming an NFL head coach in recent years. Just two of the NFL’s 32 teams have minority general managers, a top front office role often in charge of hiring head coaches and making transactions. Nearly all of the league’s owners are white.
The league also earned its lowest grade in 15 years on the 2019 Racial and Gender Report Card, issued each year by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
The NFL has taken initiatives to hire more minority candidates to leadership roles with the Rooney Rule policy, adopted in 2003. The policy originally required teams to interview one minority candidate for every head coaching vacancy, and it has expanded since its implementation. Owners even voted on new proposals to the rule just last month.
Louis Riddick is a NFL former player and current football analyst with our partners at ESPN. He has interviewed for general manager positions with the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants. Riddick told ABC’s Perspective podcast that the Rooney Rule has not done enough to create equal opportunity for minority candidates to be hired into positions of leadership:
“The results are what they are as far as minority representation in positions of influence: it's not there the way it needs to be… The NFL owners, I mean, really, what is their incentive to change? The only way that you can really, ultimately change their way of thinking in the decisions that they arrive at is to get us, the candidates, exposed to them [owners] outside of just formal interview settings so they are more comfortable, more apt to hire people like myself.”
Following the owners’ vote in May, teams are now required to interview two external minority head coaching candidates, at least one minority candidate for coordinator vacancies, and one external candidate for front-office positions.
League officials wanted to incentivize team owners to hire minority candidates by offering draft pick compensation, but the measure was not approved. Riddick felt draft compensation would undermine a candidate’s chances to succeed:
“What it does is it automatically casts doubt on whether or not that minority head coach or general manager actually got the job based off of his competency or got it based off of the incentive program. That's not something you want to saddle a new GM or coach with when he's already responsible for gaining the respect of his peers.”
Mary Jo Kane, a professor of sports sociology at the University of Minnesota, believes improving hiring practices would be an important step for the NFL to take to show they are serious about addressing racial inequities across the league:
“Once he [a candidate] walks into that building, and that's already hard enough when you are a minority and you are hired into a position of authority, whether one likes it or not, and it's not fair, you end up being the representative of that entire group. When an African-American coach fails, does that sort of unconscious discrimination creep in where you say, ‘Yeah, we took a chance and it just didn't work out?’”
Kane points to white privilege and unconscious bias playing a role in the league’s lack of diversity in leadership:“We have seen, historically, white men being hired, failing, and being rehired, even if not as a head coach, certainly as an offensive or defensive coordinator. It's always, to me, about power and who's in the room when it happens. And until there is a critical mass, not just a token presence of African-Americans being in the room, we're just not going to see, in my view, any sort of structural, and therefore, lasting change.”
One name that Goodell did not mention in his video message: Colin Kaepernick, who has remained out of the league since he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest brutality. A team taking a chance on Kaepernick would signal a change in attitude for Goodell and league owners, according to Kane. However, signing Kaepernick may not be the path owners choose to take:
“Signing him would be both a symbolic and tangible manifestation of how much things have shifted… My sense is that they, they meaning the owners, are trying to perhaps ride out this tsunami, if you will, in hopes that America will be so desperate for the return of football, and I think that that's what they want the focus to be, not the return of Colin Kaepernick.”
Since Goodell’s video message was published, no owner has spoken out to support player protests during the national anthem, despite players saying they plan to kneel during the playing of the national anthem this season.
The NFL’s shown a willingness to speak out against social injustices in the past, but has taken few risks. The league partnered with hip-hop icon Jay-Z in 2019 to address social justice issues, for example, but some considered the move vague and it was criticized by some as a public relations stunt.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, America’s dialogue about racial inequality has shifted. The tone of the NFL’s commissioner has shifted. Now, the league has an opportunity to prove its players’ impassioned response will be a catalyst for the league to take proactive, tangible steps in addressing racial inequality.
Kane says it will be important to examine the actions of NFL owners following Goodell's comments:
“What will the response of Goodell specifically and the owners generally be? That will be the true test of what Goodell's video actually meant.”
Riddick is cautiously hopeful that, in coordination with the league, players and coaches will continue to try to equalize opportunity and create more leadership positions in the NFL for minority candidates:
“How do we normalize equality? How is that possible? I don't know. With every passing day, it becomes more and more discouraging that we are going to ever be able to normalize equality. But, the fight goes on.”
Listen to the report and the rest of this past week’s highlights from Perspective here.