Day 6

'It's a white man's boys club': Why the NFL hires so few black head coaches

70 per cent of NFL players are African-American, but less than 10 per cent of the head coaches are. Sportswriter Norman Chad says the problem is the tightly knit group of mostly white men who run the league.

Even after diversity initiatives, sports columnist Norman Chad says the league has a long way to go

Washington Post columnist Norman Chad says Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, pictured, has been repeatedly passed by for head coaching opportunities. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)
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San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are a "perfect" example of the NFL's diversity problem, according to Washington Post sports columnist Norman Chad.

He notes that Bieniemy has been an offensive coordinator and an assistant coach in the NFL for 15 years, whereas Shanahan went from offensive coordinator to the 49ers head coach a short time later.

"Eric Bieniemy has been a pretty qualified coach that a lot of people have talked about. He is black. He has not been able to do anything but get interviews — and probably token interviews — over the past several years," Chad said.

As fans and athletes alike gear up for Sunday's Super Bowl 54 in Miami, Fla., the disparity between the number of black players versus coaches has some questioning the NFL's commitment to diversity. Both the 49ers and Chiefs are led by white coaches.

While African-Americans make up nearly 70 per cent of NFL players, the number drops to fewer than one in 10 for its head coaches.

In 2003, the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule, which aimed to increase minority candidates in team senior leadership roles, but Chad told Day 6 host Brent Bambury little has changed in the league's "white man's boys club."

"It would take something extraordinary to change that mindset. It would take somebody just forward thinking to say, 'We realize there's a problem.'"

Here is part of that conversation.

When you look at these two teams and think about [Sunday's] Super Bowl game, is there anyone that comes to mind as someone that you think really should be there as head coach [Sunday] but isn't on the field?

It's curious, because on the field will be the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, who has been an offensive coordinator and an assistant coach in the NFL for 15 years. 

And on the other side of the field will be Kyle Shanahan who got his job just a couple of years ago. 

They're a perfect pair to talk about the problem in the NFL of lack of minorities. Shanahan is the product of nepotism — fathers [and] sons are pretty prevalent in NFL coaching circles. His father, Mike Shanahan, was a Super Bowl coach. 

Eric Bieniemy has been a pretty qualified coach that a lot of people have talked about. He is black. He has not been able to do anything but get interviews — and probably token interviews — over the past several years. 

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan speaks during a news conference for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game, on Jan. 28, 2020, in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)

Eric Bieniemy — he's a football living legend — can you tell me why his efforts to become a coach have been frustrated?

In the NFL, it's a boys club to begin with at every level, and in the executive circles and in the front office and the coaching, it's a white man's boys club. And it's always been that way. 

So of the last 20 openings at the National Football League for a head coach, only two of them have been black. It's a league in which about 65 to 70 per cent of the players are black. 

Many of the players try to go into the coaching ranks, but that's never translated into minority coaches in the NFL.

But the NFL said that they were going to address this when they brought in something called the Rooney Rule back in 2003. What is the Rooney Rule and how has it worked?

The Rooney Rule might have been well intended, and it might have just been for public relations, and it could be both. 

But the Rooney Rule was brought in [and] named after the Steelers longtime owner Dan Rooney, and it was to try to promote more minority candidates. 

So it declared that anytime you had a head coaching opening, and then they amended it later for a general manager opening as well, you had to interview at least one minority candidate. 

When the Rooney Rule went into effect in [2003], there were three NFL head coaches that were black. The Rooney Rule is, of course, still in effect. And there are three NFL coaches who are black right now. 

We could say that maybe in the last 17 years, if the Rooney Rule wasn't in effect, maybe we'd only have one or two coaches right now who are black — or none. But it hasn't had really a major effect on changing the thinking at the top of the NFL ownership ranks.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in Aventura, Fla., for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

So let's look at what's wrong. You mentioned nepotism when you talked about Kyle Shanahan. What was the path that he took to become the head coach of the 49ers that wouldn't have been available to a black coach?

The path is similar, actually, as Eric Bieniemy's…. 

A couple of years ago, Sean McVay got hired for the Los Angeles Rams, and he was very, very young at the time — 32 or 33. He had great success, and every other team, says, all right, we got to go find our Sean McVay.

The problem again and again is when they find this Sean McVay, it's always another white person who comes up the same way. 

Now, it's not always racism involved here. To give them the benefit of the doubt, you tend to hire who you know, you tend to hire what you grew up with. So in the NFL, they always are hiring people that reflect their background. 

It would take something extraordinary to change that mindset. It would take somebody just forward thinking to say, 'We realize there's a problem.'

They never find the next great black coach who is going to be 32, 33, 35 years old.

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But realistically, could any of that change then if owners and general managers remain as white as they are now?

No, absolutely not.

I believe the Cleveland Browns just hired a black general manager this past week. There's never more than one or two general managers out of 32 in the league who are black. 

So it's realistically not going to change unless you have forward-thinking people. And in the NFL, you generally don't have the forward-thinking people, and there's no reason for them to change — they don't want to upset the apple cart. 

The public's not saying, 'Oh, we're not going to watch games because you're not hiring more blacks.' It's the most successful sports league in American sports history.

But what about players? Do they have a say, or could they exert pressure in any way?

Not really. In fact, take a look at Colin Kaepernick. He decided to step out and make a statement regarding police brutality against people of colour. He had to know — unless his best friend didn't tell him beforehand — that when you do this, you're going to probably put your career at stake. 

So it's very unlikely that players are going to step up and do that to probably damage the rest of your career.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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