The View

NFL’s coaching diversity problem could be addressed by improving the pipeline, UB expert says

Concept of diversity in NFL hiring pipeline.

Creating pathways for minority candidates, particularly former players, to achieve success in leadership positions could go a long way toward ensuring greater diversity in the NFL, UB law school faculty member Helen "Nellie" Drew says.


Published January 28, 2021

headshot of Helen Nellie Drew.
“Sports is a microcosm of society. ”
Helen "Nellie" Drew, director
Center for the Advancement of Sport

As is typical this time of year, a number of National Football League franchises have hired new head coaches. And as is customary, each was introduced with much fanfare over him being the one who will turn around the struggling team.

Also the same? The head coaches hired are predominantly white. In fact, five of the seven head coaches hired in 2021 are white. The lone exceptions are the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, the first Muslim head coach in the NFL, and David Culley for the Houston Texans.

There is currently one head coaching vacancy remaining, with the Houston Texans.

Despite its “Rooney Rule” — the policy requiring that teams interview at least one person of color when filling a head coaching vacancy — the NFL and other major sports leagues have a major problem when it comes to hiring people of color for leadership positions, and it starts with the pipeline, says Helen “Nellie” Drew, director of the Center for the Advancement of Sport in the School of Law.

Consider the fact that nearly 70% of the players in the NFL are people of color. And yet, 27 of the 32 NFL head coaches are white. Diversity in the swanky C-suites only improved very recently, with five general managers of color now among the 32 in the league. There are also only two owners of color in the NFL: Kim Pegula (co-owner, Buffalo Bills) and Shahid Khan (Jacksonville Jaguars).

“A large part of it is that a number of these are still family-owned businesses to some extent and the trajectory does not necessarily follow traditional hiring practices that would normally occur in business,” says Drew.

“The strategies that have been incorporated into normal business talent development, which belatedly incorporated diversity, equity and inclusion, are slower yet to evolve into professional sports.”

Resistance to change is another factor hurting progress. “It’s a perpetuation of norms that have been there for a very long time,” Drew adds. “Quite honestly, if there’s anything more impenetrable than decisions about head coaching positions in the NFL, I don’t know what it is.”

With so many of the NFL’s team owners, general managers and coaches being white, it’s difficult for people of color to break through, says Drew. “If you’re the owner of a team, you’re going to reach out to the people you have relationships with because you trust them,” she says. “The problem is, over time, those relationships with people of color have not developed as extensively as they might have if there were more diversity in the positions responsible for hiring talent.”

Creating pathways for minority candidates, particularly former players, to achieve success in leadership positions — similar to what many corporations do through internships and other training and development opportunities — could go a long way toward ensuring greater diversity in the NFL, says Jake Cercone, a graduate student of Drew’s who serves as president of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society.

Cercone is examining issues of diversity and inclusion in professional sports as part of an independent study program.

Microcosm of society

Essentially, NFL franchises are multi-billion dollar corporations, each with its own intricacies. When one looks at the composition of professional positions in the U.S., it’s easy to understand why the NFL has a diversity problem, Cercone and Drew say.

“Sports is a microcosm of society,” Drew says.

Consider these statistics: Black households are less wealthy than their white counterparts. And despite comprising nearly 13% of the U.S. population, African Americans account for only 5% of the nation’s doctors, 5% of lawyers, 4% of chief management executives and less than 1% of CPAs.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the cycle keeps continuing if there hasn’t been enough effort to break the cycle at every single step,” says Cercone. “I know for a lot of African Americans there’s always been a contrary — every time there’s progress, there’s something that destroys it.”

Cercone says it goes back to education, and the fact that Black students in America don’t benefit from the same advantages white students have to obtain high scores on the SAT and a college degree. “Those educational opportunities aren’t going to minorities, and that’s why, I believe, there aren’t as many African Americans coaching in the NFL, because they’re not getting that soft skills training that you learn through the education system.”

Populating the pipeline

Drew agrees with that assessment, asking, “What’s the pipeline?”

“In order to populate the pipeline, you have to first examine how many coaches can even afford to get in the pipeline,” Cercone says.

One way to improve the pipeline from the top down might be to give a person of color a managing owner stake in an NFL franchise, even though that individual may not have the financial control, Drew and Cercone say. That was the model rocker Jon Bon Jovi and the Rogers family planned to leverage as part of their failed bid to buy the Buffalo Bills seven years ago, Cercone points out.

Drew also notes that each NFL club participates in the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a vocational tool to increase the number of full-time NFL minority coaches. The program has been in place since 1987. “So what happens to the 32 prospective coaching candidates who should be emerging from that pipeline? Clearly, if the fellowship was working, we would be seeing these candidates as new hires,” she says.

Despite the NFL’s flaws, both Drew and Cercone say progress is being made.

“There are hopeful signs, but there’s a lot more that has to be done, and I think the only way that’s going to happen is if people pay attention to it,” says Drew, adding that people have been paying closer attention to NFL hires as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Adds Cercone: “It’s OK to celebrate the progress and yet demand more going forward. It’s OK to understand where you came from, the hardships and issues, and yet acknowledge them and continue to improve.”