Politics & Policy

Color in Coaching

How racial games are played in the NFL.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the September 1, 2003, issue of National Review.

It’s a bizarre tale, and a very American tale. In fact, in 2003, it’s practically unsurprising: Race is on the rampage, bedeviling the country in manifold ways.

In the last week of July, the National Football League fined Matt Millen, president of the Detroit Lions, $200,000. Why? Because he had hired the head coach he wanted–Steve Mariucci, who had been let go by the San Francisco 49ers–without interviewing any black candidates. He had tried: that is, the club had contacted five different black coaches, trying to get them to participate in some sort of interview. But none of those men would agree, because the job was Mariucci’s: It was a foregone conclusion; everyone knew it.

Why did the Lions even gesture toward these five coaches? Because of a new NFL rule: A team, when it has a head-coaching vacancy, must interview a “minority” candidate, or suffer the consequences. (In this case, as in other cases, “minority” is merely a euphemism for black. No one is talking about Vietnamese-born coaches.) Here’s how the rule came about: Last fall, two famous “civil-rights” lawyers-Cyrus Mehri and the even more famous Johnnie Cochran, of O. J. notoriety-decided to tackle the NFL: They circulated a document called “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities.” They said the league had better start producing more black head coaches, or they would go to court.

The NFL jumped: It created a Workplace Diversity Committee–no institution is complete without one these days–and forged its must-interview-one-”minority”-candidate rule, known as the Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was anointed chairman of the Diversity Committee. (Follow all that?) The owners, collectively, seemed relieved to be clear of a lawsuit, and seen as “doing something.”

The question of black coaches and the NFL has long been a staple of sports–and-sociology. For many years, sportswriters would pen–oh, every couple of months–the Tony Dungy Column. This was the column that said, “Tony Dungy [a prominent black assistant coach] is a marvel, and he doesn’t have a head-coaching job. It’s an outrage and proves the inveterate racism of the NFL.” The Tony Dungy Column stopped being written, however, when Dungy was indeed hired as a head coach. Actually, that column is still being written, only instead of Tony Dungy it’s Ted Cottrell, Greg Blache, Lovie Smith, and a few others: These are black assistant coaches whose lack of head-coaching jobs is said to be a scandal, further proving the racism of professional football. Deserving white assistant coaches are apparently never deprived of their due.

The coaching question is an important one, of course, and a vexing one: The NFL is a league dominated by black players; but there are only three black head coaches, out of the 32 teams–which seems a gross imbalance, if you think in racial terms. The NFL has been working to “develop” black coaches: They have a “minority coaching internship program,” and there is a similar program in the European NFL (yes, there is one).

But when the Lions’ Millen went to hire his head coach, he wasn’t thinking about race or redress: He was thinking about Steve Mariucci, the Peg o’ his heart. The two were old friends, and Millen had long wanted Mariucci at the head of his team. It was an open secret. So when the 49ers dumped him, Millen promptly fired his own head coach (a sap named Marty Mornhinweg) and snapped up Mariucci. But there was that rule: so he felt out those black coaches, who refused to play along, and rightly so. Then he inked his man.

Whereupon a bit of hell broke loose. Cyrus Mehri, the lawyer, said “what Matt Millen has done harkens back to the good-old-boy days.” Jesse Jackson called for the punishment of the Lions. (“Lions Fed to Christian”?) The Detroit City Council–those statesmen–unanimously passed a resolution condemning the hiring. Now, this business of interviewing candidates of a certain color-regardless of your plans or thinking-is a tricky one. Gene Upshaw, head of the Players Association, warned of this, way back: He said that, if you mandated something like the Rooney Rule, “it will lead to sham interviews and sham lists [of coaches].” But when Millen hired the coach of his dreams, Upshaw said that he had “treated [the rule] almost as a nuisance.” Well, no kidding. Many commentators have scoffed at “courtesy” interviews, and “going through the motions,” and “dog-’n’-pony shows”–but if they support tokenism–nay, mandate it–what else do they expect? They decry the indignity that a black coach has to suffer when he’s used as a pawn in the satisfaction of a rule-but, again, what else do they expect?

Teams had better interview these black candidates “in good faith,” they say, and “with an open mind”: but how is such a mental state to be determined? Part of Matt Millen’s problem was that he was just too honest–too human, too normal. In fact, Larry Lee, a former Lions executive–black, if anyone cares-told Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post, “It was Matt’s inexperience in the front office that led him to be so open about [his] desire, when an experienced front-office executive would have kept [it] to himself.” So Millen is penalized, and demonized, for not being a more convincing actor in a charade: for saying (essentially), “This is the coach I want, race has nothing to do with it, I’m going to hire him, if NFL teams still have something like freedom of action.”

After Millen was fined, he–and the Lions-mounted all the usual defenses: beginning with “Some of my best friends are black.” (Millen’s compadre at Penn State was another football standout, Bruce Clark. Together, they were known as “Salt and Pepper.”) The Lions put out the usual abject statement, to wit, “While we respectfully disagree with the [NFL’s] decision we continue to enthusiastically support all initiatives which promote diversity in hiring,” blah, blah, blah. The team pleaded that it had blacks coming out its ears, including a dozen in management positions. Plus, there was the Lions’ black offensive coordinator (in fact, the last three had been black! How about that?!). This is one of the problems with the racializing of life: It mandates the counting up of everyone by skin color, incessantly. An offensive coordinator stops being an offensive coordinator and begins being a proud racial stat. Lions vice-chairman Bill Ford Jr.–of the auto family–testily contended that he had “more African-Americans running dealerships than all the rest of the auto companies combined.” He also pointed out that he had once been NAACP Man of the Year. William C. Rhoden, the dyspeptic and race-minded sports columnist of the New York Times, said, “Did he get the ‘Soul Train’ award, too?”

Good one, Rhoden!

This is the dilemma the likes of Ford are in: They can’t win for losing. If they hire a white coach-even while fulfilling the Rooney Rule to perfection-they may be seen as social villains. If they hire a black coach, they will win applause (until they feel like firing that coach, in which event they’d better have a passel of black candidates at the ready). Every hirer of a head coach is now under a microscope, his very humanity in question. When the 49ers hired Dennis Erickson, and the Dallas Cowboys hired Bill Parcells, and the Jacksonville Jaguars hired Jack Del Rio, all three teams came under very, very heavy suspicion. The teams had obeyed the Rooney Rule, all right: but these coaches are white. And they themselves were the subjects of much editorial abuse. The suggestion, in each case, was that they had benefited from what we used to call “white skin privilege.” They were “recycled,” and worse.

Next year, Dick Vermeil, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, will likely retire. Therefore, as Randy Covitz noted in the Kansas City Star, the team “could be in the crosshairs of the minority-hiring issue and a target of [Johnnie] Cochran’s.” What if, for example, the club “promotes assistant head coach Al Saunders and gives the impression it did not fairly consider minority candidates”? We are now into impressions. Perhaps the brave new social engineers should stop pussyfootin’ around with this interviewing stuff and simply mandate the hiring of black head coaches-a certain percentage of the slots in the league. Say, half. Such a scenario is not altogether unthinkable, and it would have the benefit of cutting to the chase.

As always, things are infinitely easier when you judge people as people, and not as representatives of a race. These affirmative-action questions, which pop up in every area of American life, get so dreary, we tire of making the usual points and arguments: What if there’s a half-black coach? Do you have to interview another half-black coach–or another “fully” black coach, making one and a half, total–to be in compliance with Rooney?

And one thinks of another question, with deep roots in the abolition and civil-rights movements (not to mention the Bible): How long, Lord? How long will we bend under a racial storm, until dumb color washes away?

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