NFL·Opinion

Minority NFL head coaches hired to lose amid lawsuit over alleged racial discrimination

As CBC Sports Senior Contributor Morgan Campbell writes, newly hired minority head coaches Lovie Smith and Mike McDaniel are doomed to fail in jobs with major drawbacks as the league faces public pressure amid former coach Brian Flores' lawsuit over alleged racial discrimination.

Texans promote Lovie Smith as placeholder with NFL facing public pressure, writes Morgan Campbell

The Houston Texans promoted defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to head coach on Monday while the National Football League faces public pressure amid Brian Flores' lawsuit over alleged racial discrimination. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On Monday afternoon the Houston Texans promoted defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to head coach, a routine transaction if you focus on the merits.

Smith, 63, spent nine seasons as head coach of the Chicago Bears, compiling 81 wins and 63 losses, and leading the team to its first Super Bowl appearance since its mid-1980s glory days. The Bears fired Smith in 2012, after the team went 10-6. In 2014 he resurfaced in Tampa Bay, where he went 8-24 over two years with the rebuilding Bucs.

The other main candidate for the Texans' head coaching job? Recently retired quarterback Josh McCown, who has never coached in the NFL in any capacity.

A simple decision if you're seeking the best résumé.

Except McCown is white, and if you follow NFL head coach hiring patterns, you know that detail gives McCown more than an inside track in a job competition against a Black person. It gives him a head start, too. And sympathetic race marshals.

A week ago, McCown was the favourite to win the Texans' job, vacated when the club fired David Culley. Smith surfaced late in the coaching search, even though he was already on the Texans' staff. His name appeared in media reports last Friday, and by Monday the Texans had named him their new on-field boss. In promoting Smith, the Texans become only the second franchise in NFL history to hire two consecutive Black coaches.

If you're curious about who did it first — it was the Indianapolis Colts who replaced Tony Dungy with Jim Caldwell in 2009.

Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is suing the NFL for racial discrimination. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)

The Flores effect

And if you're wondering how Smith went from afterthought to top candidate in 48 hours, credit the Flores effect.

That's Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach who, after being fired, then enduring what he calls a sham interview with the New York Giants, sued the NFL and three of its teams for racial discrimination. Flores, who is Black, alleges that the Giants and Broncos interviewed him only to satisfy a league-mandated diversity requirement, and not to offer him a legitimate chance at their head coaching jobs. His class-action suit contends that Black coaches labour under systemic racism that limits head coaching opportunities, and double standards that threaten job security.

Flores, 40, also alleges that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross tried to bribe him to lose games — $100,000 US per loss, the lawsuit says — hoping the team could finish last and get the top pick in the 2020 draft.

Soon after the lawsuit made news, the NFL published a statement saying Flores' claims, which haven't been proven in court, were "without merit," even though it hadn't investigated them, and even though the league implemented the Rooney Rule in 2003 hoping to jolt teams out of racially biased hiring patterns.

While Flores might have set his long-term head coaching goals aflame in taking the NFL to court, smart money said that in the short run, just to try to weaken his argument, one of the NFL's open head coaching jobs would go to a candidate of colour — a Black person, if possible.

Of course, it's always possible. Qualified Black coaches — paging Jim Caldwell — outnumber head coaching vacancies every off-season. This winter, Flores lost his job after leading a denuded Miami roster to its second consecutive winning season. The public pressure his lawsuit created possibly vaulted Smith past McCown for the Houston job, and helped get Mike McDaniel hired in Miami.

If you have googled McDaniel and seen his picture, you might wonder about where he fits into a discussion of the job market for Black football coaches. Hold your questions. I'll address them. I promise.

Doomed to fail

First, let's discuss what else we knew about the places new Black head coaches would land: At jobs with drawbacks, big red flags waving alongside the Stars and Stripes at the team facility.

Smith, for one, was hired to lose, just like Culley was last year. DeShaun Watson, the club's franchise quarterback, is facing 10 criminal complaints, and lawsuits from 22 massage therapists, alleging a broad range of non-consensual sexual touching. He spent last season in limbo, and if he ever plays again, it likely won't be in Houston.

His absence leaves second-year pro Davis Mills, who, unlike Watson in his peak years, can't lean on All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was traded to Arizona in 2020. The Texans could, potentially, pivot to a Tennessee Titans-style, run-first offence. Except Tennessee has Derrick Henry, while Houston's leading rusher, Rex Burkhead, totalled 427 yards last season.

Lovie Smith speaks at an introductory press conference as new head coach of the Texans on Tuesday at NRG Stadium in Houston. (Brett Coomer/The Associated Press)

So Smith inherits an offence about as robust as the job market for Black head coaches, at 63 years old, on a team that picks third in the upcoming draft. It all points to the Texans installing him as a placeholder and foundation-builder, who will move or be moved aside once the team looks ready to contend.

McDaniel, meanwhile, goes from coordinating the San Francisco 49ers' formidable run game to directing a team whose featured running back is Myles Gaskin, and whose star quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, doesn't even show up on the first page of NFL.com's list of 2021 passing yardage leaders. McDaniel will also work for Stephen Ross, whom Flores alleges offered bribes when more organic ways to torpedo the team's 2019 results failed.

The glass cliff

Workplace equity experts identified a pattern years ago — award a long-overdue promotion to a member of a marginalized group, then put them in charge of a project that's doomed to fail. They call it the glass cliff, and if you see parallels in this winter's cohort of new Black head coaching hires, you're not wrong.

But McDaniel? Is he Black? By phenotype, not really. But he identifies as biracial. Many people, including some former co-workers, didn't realize it until McDaniel clarified it to correct a Deadspin article that had, erroneously, labelled him a "white guy."

For the record, McDaniels' paternal grandmother is African-American, which makes him Black under the One Drop Rule, and gives him a legitimate claim to African-American identity, if he chooses to exercise it. For an NFL team looking to burnish its diversity record by hiring a visible minority candidate it makes him more than Black enough.

And the hire came the week after podcast host Joe Rogan, who apparently has discovered 70 contextually appropriate uses for the N-word, Jordan Peterson, who left his tenured position at the University of Toronto to protest… something, declared that African-American scholar Michael Eric Dyson is not Black.

Rogan and Peterson were referring to Dyson's skin, which, they discovered, to their amazement, isn't literally black. But in missing the point on race, they, along with NFL teams under sudden pressure from Flores, highlighted a fundamental feature of colour lines.

They're less fixed barriers than velvet ropes, and they bend, open and close at white people's discretion.

Next year's off-season hiring cycle might look like this one did, but for now, Smith and McDaniel are members of an exclusive club. They should each send Flores a thank you card, and a bottle of whatever he's drinking.

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