Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Sports: Diversity Patrol

The Atlanta Falcons fired head coach Dan Reeves today. No surprise there. The question now becomes, how committed is Falcons owner Arthur Blank to “diversity”? Coincidentally, yesterday the NFL issued “a set of interviewing guidelines” designed to “assist clubs in implementing the NFL policy on equal employment and diversity.” Blank serves on the NFL’s Committee on Workplace Diversity—along with five other white, male owners—which drafted the guidelines. Now Blank will have to comply with its requirements.

And there are many requirements. The basic goal of the policy is to get more African-American candidates interviewed, and hopefully hired, for head coaching positions. There are currently three black head coaches in the NFL: Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy, and the New York Jets’ Herman Edwards. The NFL’s lawyers are afraid that’s not enough. Civil rights agitators have been knocking on the league’s door in recent years (spurred on by sympathetic media commentators) demanding more, ahem, affirmative action on the lack of black coaches. Last year the league implemented its current policy, which failed the moment Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen hired the coach he long sought, Steve Mariucci. Millen tried to jump through the league’s diversity hoops by calling in black candidates, but none of them would interview for a position that was already filled. The NFL fined Millen $200,000 to teach him a lesson. What that lesson was still escapes me.

So the lawyers went back to the drawing board and drew up a step-by-step guide to diverse interviewing practices. There are ten specific guidelines—maybe Roy Moore will display them in a two-ton monument—that break the hiring process down in excruciating detail. Here are two highlights:
First, prior to beginning the interview process, a club should prepare a job description that clearly and fully defines the role of its head coach and the qualities it is looking for in its head coach. Such basic questions as the extent of authority, reporting relationships to the owner and other club executives, responsibility for player personnel and salary cap management, and supervisory duties relating to other club staff need to and should be addressed before interviews begin. As the interviewing process proceeds, it may be appropriate to modify the job description.

* * * * *

Third, as part of the search process, clubs should make certain that they identify a deep and diverse -- by many different criteria -- pool of head coaching candidates. As part of this effort, clubs should be sure that they are knowledgeable about potential minority candidates for the head coaching vacancy both within and outside their own organization. The League Office can provide this information, and consideration should normally be given at the outset to using the League as a resource for helping to identify qualified minority and nonminority candidates.
The first requirement sounds like it was written by a first-year MBA student with no practical work experience. Do they expect NFL owners to put out a “help wanted” ad for head coaches? If you ask most owners what they expect from a coach, they’ll answer “win more games than you lose.”

The third requirement takes diversity as an anti-concept to a new plateau. First, it’s ridiculously pejorative to divide people into “minority and nonminority” classifications. It makes black coaches sound like they’re an endangered species that needs protecting from ravenous wolves. Just using such language gives your overall initiative the appearance of being a sham. Second, what precisely are the “many different criteria” teams are supposed to use in assembling a candidate pool? Couldn’t that conflict with the first requirement’s call for an explicit job description? For example, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder hired Steve Spurrier for a very specific set of reasons: Spurrier was an established name, he ran a particular offense that appealed to Snyder, and he didn’t ask for too much personnel authority. Snyder did not go out and interview candidates that fit the opposite profile, because he knew what he wanted. This means Snyder isn’t committed enough to diversity, right? Wrong. When he fired Norv Turner in 2000, Snyder offered the interim coaching job to two black candidates, one of whom declined. And today the Redskins have two black coordinators serving under Spurrier. Snyder gets called a lot of names, but racist isn’t one of them.

The “many different criteria” guideline is classic lawyer-speak: it sounds ominous, but is impossible to define in practice. It is the exact opposite of a well-thought out concept, which means it can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis, precisely what the lawyers intended.

Having said all this, I don’t want people to take the NFL’s action too seriously. This isn’t like the University of Michigan case, which involved taxpayer supported universities allegedly dedicated to education. For all the pomp and lawyering, the NFL’s policy applies to the hiring of 32 positions in a nation of 250 million people. This is not an issue anyone should be storming the barricades over.

Still, I am curious why the number of black head coaches isn’t higher. The first thing I’d like to know is what percentage of all football coaches—high school, college, and professional—are black. We already know the percentage of coaches that are black is lower than the percentage of players that are black. But overall, how many blacks go into coaching in the first place? I’ve never seen that question answered. Is it possible blacks simply aren’t as interested in coaching as whites? Many if not most coaches never play beyond the collegiate level. What happens to black college players who graduate but don’t go to the NFL? If someone knows of any data on these issues, please let me know.

The real scandal, if one exists, is the noticeable lack of black head coaches in Division I-A college football. There’s currently four or five, I can’t remember which, black coaches out of about 116 programs. That really makes you think, especially given the ferocity with which most major colleges defend general affirmative action programs. For example, the last time I checked, the University of Michigan had a white dude coaching their football team; yet when it comes to undergraduate admissions, the school insisted on strict racial quotas.

Another theme that the NFL’s policy tries to address is the notion, popularized by the media, that black coaches are waiting too long before getting their first head coaching job. This point was hammered home when Marvin Lewis was hired by the Bengals; after serving as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator during that team’s 2000 Super Bowl season, commenters spent three years bemoaning the lack of a head coaching offer.

But did Lewis wait that much longer than other coaches? Using the NFL Record and Fact Book, I calculated the number of years each of NFL’s 31 active head coaches (I excluded the fired Reeves and his interim successor) took to go from their first assistant coaching job to their first NFL head coaching job. The mean was 17 years. Lewis took 22 years. That would seem to support the media’s argument. But the league’s other two black coaches took less than 17 years: Tony Dungy took 14 years, Herman Edwards only 12. And some successful white coaches took as long or longer than Lewis to get their shots: Mike Martz took 27 years to arrive as coach of the Rams, which he led to a Super Bowl; Brian Billick needed 22 years to get the head coaching job in Baltimore, the same number of years as his former assistant Lewis.

One thing that seems to help potential head coaches rise to the top faster is extensive pro playing experience. Herm Edwards’ short 12-year rise was likely facilitated by his nine-year career. Mike Tice got the Minnesota job after just six years of coaching, but he also had 14 years of playing experience. In the NBA, far more coaches were pro players, which might explain why there are more black coaches. But most football head coaches didn’t have a pro playing career. Once again, this raises an interesting question: Do black football players want to coach?

Finally, I have to laugh when thinking about Arthur Blank following his own diversity policy. Before buying the Falcons, Blank made his fortune as a co-founder of Home Depot. Is this a man who needs to be lectured on hiring the best people regardless of race?

No comments: