NFL Still Needs More Black Coaches
NEAL CONAN, host:
Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Super Bowl Sunday is less than a week away, and along with the usual hype, an extra dose of attention this year on the coaches. For the first time there's an African-American head coach on the sidelines. In fact, there are two, so either Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts or the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith will be the first black coach to win pro football's ultimate game.
In an op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Dave Zirin says we have plenty to celebrate in their success, but he argues that pro football still has a very long way to go. Dave Zirin is the author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States." He joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in today.
Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Author, "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States"): Great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: Over the years, the barriers have fallen: first black quarterback, first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, now the first African-American coach to win it. This certainly represents progress.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, but I would argue that the progress achieved by Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy has occurred in spite of the NFL, not because of the NFL. I mean the NFL's hiring practices resemble the admittance policies of a 1950's country club. Still to this day in 2006 - 2007, excuse me, we're talking about six out of 32 coaches in the NFL are African-American at this point in a league that's 70 percent black. Three executives, three general managers, are African-American in the NFL. And compared to other sports, there certainly is a ways to go.
CONAN: And you also mentioned the fact that there is a - some of the progress that has been made is due to something called the Rooney Rule - named after the late head of the Pittsburgh Steelers - and they insisted that at least one African-American, one minority, had to be interviewed every time there was a head coaching position open.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. And, you know, the National Football League is the only pro sports league where owners have to be mandated to interview candidates of color. I think that says something in and of itself. And the reason the Rooney Rule is even in existence is because the late Johnnie Cochran and his legal partner, Cyrus Mehri, threatened a mass anti-discrimination lawsuit in 2002.
Now in 2002, the number of African-American head coaches stood at two. The number of general managers stood at one. So yes, there's been progress, but it's been absolutely glacial in pace.
CONAN: Though one of the things that a lot of people have pointed out, as you look at the careers of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith and other African-American coaches, is that because of hiring practices in the past, they got a very late start.
Mr. ZIRIN: A very late start indeed. I mean Tony Dungy was named an NFL assistant at age 25, for goodness' sakes. And for years he was rumored that he was going to be the first African-American assistant coach; and yes, it did take years. And when Tony Dungy did finally get an opportunity, and you see this pattern often with African-American head coaches, it was with the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
See, often African-American head coaches - and there have been only eight hired in the entire modern era, only eight for goodness' sakes - they're hired to teams where they're the hire of last resort and they have to be twice as successful as their white counterparts.
Of the 50 combined seasons that African-American head coaches have been involved in, 29 times they've reached the playoffs. They have a lifetime 546 winning percentage. So it's literally like the old saw that one would hope would be in America's past, where if you're going to achieve in a white-dominated field and you're African-American, you actually have to be twice as good as your competition.
CONAN: Dave Zirin is on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page this week. His editorial was published in the Los Angeles Times. If you'd like to read it, there's a link to it on our Web page. You can go to npr.org/talk and read several of the other former Opinion Page pieces. They are also available for download if you'd like to do that. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
The college ranks of course provide the players for professional football…
Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.
CONAN: …almost to a man, and also provide a training ground for a lot of coaches, yet the situation for African-Americans in the college ranks is even worse than it is in the professional ranks.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. If we had all the NFL head coaches in a room right now, they would look like the Harlem Globetrotters compared to what you see in the college ranks. We're talking about seven, seven out of 116 NCAA head coaching jobs are held by African-Americans, by people of color. And this gap is just profound.
So not only are African-American head coaches not getting the opportunity, they're also not getting the training at the college ranks. And you know, this is something that's actually I think going to need to change in the years ahead if the NFL is going to frankly continue to grow and be the king sports league that it certainly is right now.
CONAN: One of the things that has been happening of late, we mentioned the Rooney Rule, named after the late head of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Pittsburgh Steelers went out after the retirement of their long-time coach this season and lived up to the Rooney Rule's terminology.
Mr. ZIRIN: They certainly did. They hired a gentleman, Mike Tomlin, who was a coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. And I thought that was a terrific move on their part because actually it holds with their tradition of hiring 30-something coordinators.
I mean the Steelers are really unique in that they've only had three head coaches. Tomlin's their third head coach since the late 1960s: the great Chuck Noll, and then Bill Cowher, and now Mike Tomlin. One of the things that was actually very nice was a gentleman who's one of the heads of the Black Coaches Association said that the best thing about the Mike Tomlin hire is when he heard about it, he didn't know if Mike Tomlin was African-American or not until he actually saw his picture in the paper.
That's where we want to get to. But to say that we're there right now, as a lot of articles have said in celebration of Dungy and Smith, is just not the truth.
CONAN: Also, one of the star franchises in the National Football League, the New York Giants, hired a relatively young - I can call him relatively young; he might be old compared to you - but relatively young African-American man as their general manager.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yes, Jerry Reese, and that's the third in history and the third right now in the NFL. And as I said, as recently as 2002, the number of African-American general managers was one. And we haven't even talked about the ownership ranks here, which remains as, you know, as lily-white as a 1950's country club at this point. And I think the NFL just needs to do a lot more. Given the fact that the face of so many franchises is African-American, that needs to be matched not only in the coaching ranks, not only in the general managing ranks, but in the ownership ranks, as well.
Other sports have begun to take these steps, and there's no reason for the NFL to lag so far behind. They should be trendsetters. They should be pacesetters for sports throughout the United States. Instead, they are lagging.
CONAN: When you talked about other sports, there are an awful lot of African-American coaches in pro basketball.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. Currently, it's 11 out of 30. In years past, it's been 15, 16 out of 30. There are eight general managers in the National Basketball Association, there are a number of team presidents. And Bob Johnson became the first African-American owner of a major sport when he bought the appropriately named Charlotte Bobcats.
CONAN: Just last year, yeah.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. Not a wilting flower that Bob Johnson.
CONAN: No, I don't think so. Not shy.
Mr. ZIRIN: Not shy, no. But I'll tell you something, though, about the NBA. The best sign of the NBA and the fact that it has progress is that there are African-American head coaches who are, you know, tremendously successful like Nate McMillan, who's turning around the franchise in Portland and coached Seattle, and African-American head coaches who are disastrous, as my poor hometown Knicks have experienced with Isiah Thomas.
CONAN: Don't tell me about it.
Mr. ZIRIN: I know. I'll start weeping on the air. But the issue there is that that's really progress, when the hiring and firing happens at all levels, and you know, they can be terrific, they can be terrible, and the issue of color and race actually recedes to the background.
The mere fact that we're having this show, the mere fact that we're even talking about it shows the degree to which the NFL still has a ways to go.
CONAN: I guess last year, Art Shell, once the coach of the Oakland Raiders, was rehired as the coach of the Oakland Raiders, so he's our first African-American retread.
Mr. ZIRIN: Dennis Green, as well.
CONAN: Dennis Green, of course.
Mr. ZIRIN: With the Vikings and then the Cardinals. But once again, I mean it goes back to what I was saying before about getting hired at the worst possible franchises. I mean, the Arizona Cardinals might as well call themselves the Arizona Jinx. I mean, no matter how many players they get, they just keep running into walls, and those seem to be the only jobs available.
I thought that one of the greatest signs of progress with that regard was when Dungy was hired by the Indianapolis Colts after his years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, getting a good franchise and getting a chance to take it to that next level.
CONAN: Dave Zirin, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. ZIRIN: My privilege.
CONAN: Dave Zirin, author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States" and the upcoming "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain Politics and Promise of Sports." We have a link to his op-ed and to all the Opinion Page podcasts at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.
And this is NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.