In Competition for Top Jobs, in the N.F.L. and Beyond, It Pays to be a White Man

The hiring season for head coaches in the N.F.L., the world’s richest sports organization, is nearing its end the way it almost does.

Four N.F.L. teams replaced their head coaches, and only one of the new hires was not white. After reaching a high-water mark of eight minority coaches two years ago, the league has just four now, with the Cleveland Browns still deciding who their next head coach will be.

The dearth of coaches of color stands out in a league in which about three-quarters of the players are black, a figure that has steadily risen during the past several decades. The Giants have been criticized by diversity advocates for choosing Joe Judge, a white man, to be their new head coach even though he has no such experience. He does have recommendations from prominent coaches he had worked for, including Bill Belichick, who has led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl championships.

Judge “just has a certain presence about him,” Giants co-owner John Mara said, in explaining why Judge stood out.

For many, Mara’s explanation of how the Giants settled on Judge encapsulated the flawed processes and thinking that many of the country’s elite institutions, the N.F.L. included, follow when evaluating candidates for top positions. Yet the N.F.L.’s failures stand out because black athletes dominate team rosters and the league has long struggled with race issues.

Hiring processes often include nods toward inclusion. In the N.F.L.’s case, that is the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to “interview at least one diverse candidate from the Career Development Advisory Panel list or a diverse candidate not currently employed by the club.”

The rule has been around since 2003, yet when it’s time to choose a leader, decision makers, who are largely white, have usually selected someone who looks like them and they are rarely punished for violating the letter or the spirit of the rule. In addition to the paucity of coaches of color, just two teams employ minority general managers, the senior football position in N.F.L. front offices.

The N.F.L. is not alone. According to a report last year from Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance, white executives accounted for 80.7 percent of the corporate board seats filled from 2016 to 2018 at Fortune 500 companies. Currently, there are just four black chief executives at Fortune 500 companies.

Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which tracks diversity at major sports leagues, said the N.F.L. and corporate America have the same self-inflicted problem — a failure to provide access to the clubby, largely white and male world at the highest echelon of power.

“Corporations are definitely not stocked with women and minorities at its higher ranks,” Lapchick said. “It’s very much a white man’s environment.”

But unlike large corporations, which have the flexibility to create new positions and can define success in a multitude of ways, the N.F.L. has a stark racial contrast between its players and coaches that is hard to hide when millions of fans see the team sidelines every weekend. This has turned into a source of embarrassment for the league.

“When we look at the numbers, they’re not where they should be,” Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations at the N.F.L., said last month. “Who can pound their chest and be proud of what we see?”

Recently, the main avenue to head coaching jobs in the N.F.L. has been experience guiding an offense, a role in which minorities have been underrepresented. Among the 32 teams this season, there were two African-American offensive coordinators and 10 defensive coordinators.

In November, the N.F.L. acknowledged that it must do more to promote diversity when it hired Dasha Smith as its chief people officer, responsible for “talent and diversity strategies” and other initiatives. Smith previously worked at Sony Music, Time Inc. and at an investment firm.

Diversity advocates say that the preference for white coaches and general managers is unlikely to change much until more team owners are people of color.

While 28 percent of management jobs at the league headquarters belong to people of color, the representation among the teams’ top front-office executives is 11 percent, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which compiles an annual report on the hiring of women and minorities in the N.F.L.

“People hire people they’re comfortable with, and the people you feel most comfortable with are people with similar ideas,” said Rod Graves, a former N.F.L. general manager and league executive who now runs the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in football.

Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys, hired Mike McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. Both men are white. While the Cowboys followed the Rooney Rule and interviewed minority candidates, Jones revealed that he’d had his heart set on McCarthy all along.

“I knew Mike McCarthy long before he ever walked through these doors,” Jones said on Wednesday. “So much more went into how and why he’s sitting at this table today.”

The job interview, it seemed, was a mere formality.

As for the Giants, Mara touted the team’s search process, which he said included “the deepest and most talented group of candidates that I’ve seen.” Judge, 38, who until this season had never coached a unit in the N.F.L. other than special teams, prevailed because of his intangibles, Mara said.

Experts say the only way the N.F.L. will change is if the owners take it upon themselves to expand their view of available candidates.


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