Michael Cunningham: Here we go again: NFL still has ‘double standard’ with Black coaches

By Michael Cunningham

ATLANTA — In 2003, NFL franchise owners had to be prodded to seriously consider Black candidates to coach their teams. They were willing to sign Black players to make them money while risking their health. They were reluctant to let them lead their teams after they were done playing. Once those Black coaches got more opportunities, they proved they should have had them all along.

Now the league is going backward again.

There were three Black coaches when the NFL adopted the so-called Rooney Rule to increase diversity among head coaches. There’s one Black coach after the Dolphins fired Brian Flores and Houston dismissed David Culley. That’s Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season over 15 years, won one Super Bowl and made it to another.

Maybe that’s the sky-high standard Black coaches must meet to stick around. Lately, they haven’t even got a second year. Three of the last five coaches to get fired after one season are Black: Culley, Steve Wilks and Hue Jackson.

It’s starting to feel like 2018 again. After that season, five Black coaches were fired and replaced by five white coaches. Flores was let go after consecutive winning seasons. That’s a throwback to the pre-Rooney Rule days, when the Bucs fired Tony Dungy after he led his team to the playoffs and one bad season ended Dennis Green’s successful run in Minnesota.

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, recently told the Washington Post that teams have a “double standard” with judging the performance of Black coaches.

“I don’t think that that is something that we should shy away from,” Vincent said, via the Post. “But that is all part of some of the things that we need to fix in the system. We want to hold everyone to why does one, let’s say, get the benefit of the doubt to be able to build or take bumps and bruises in this process of getting a franchise turned around when others are not afforded that latitude?”

That double standard is what led to the NFL adopting the Rooney Rule in the first place. Dungy and Green were fired the year before. The league was under the threat of litigation over racial bias in hiring decisions by its teams. Attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran were pressuring the league to improve its record.

The lawyers commissioned a study by Penn professor Janice Fanning Manning. The study, published in 2004, found that Black coaches were performing better than their white counterparts. She concluded: “Overall, the results are consistent with African American coaches being held to higher standards to get their jobs in the NFL.”

Flores and Culley are the latest victims of that dynamic. Both coaches won as many games as could reasonably be expected under the circumstances.

The Dolphins were 23-25 under coach Adam Gase from 2015-18, including 7-9 in his final season. Flores took over in 2019 and beat the betting market’s expectations over three years. Flore’s first Dolphins team had over/under win total of 4.5 and finished 5-11. The Dolphins finished 10-6 in 2020 with an over/under of six and 9-8 this season with an over/under of nine.

There are reports that Flores was let go because he was difficult to work with. That train is always on time when successful Black coaches are fired. Meanwhile, white coaches are celebrated for their abrasive personalities so long as they win.

Culley got the Texans job after Bill O’Brien ran the team into the ground. Taking over bad situations is another reality face more often by Black coaches than their white colleagues. ESPN’s Luke Knox examined data on head coach performance from 2003-18. He found that Black coaches had to “take over a higher rate of bad teams in Year 1,″ went on to beat expectations but still got shorter tenures than white coaches.

The Texans were a mess when Culley took over as coach. He inherited a roster that lacked talent and depth thanks to O’Brien’s bungling as general manager. Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson demanded a trade after the 2020 season. He ended up sitting out all of 2021 as he faced 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct (Watson’s lawyer filed a response denying the allegations).

Culley led the Texans to a 4-13 this season without Watson. His bosses couldn’t have expected any better. Culley was set up to take the fall. After the final game, the Texans sent Culley out to talk to media and pretended he was keeping his job. Culley should get all the $17 million left on his four-year contract.

The Rooney Rule’s legacy is being tarnished again after it created more opportunities for Black coaches. There were six Black coaches in the NFL over the league’s first 80 years, including one (Art Shell) in the modern era. There were four Black coaches in the 16 years before the Rooney Rule. NFL teams hired 22 minority coaches from 2003-19.

Just like their predecessors, the Black coaches among that group proved they can do the job. Flores and Culley did the same. Black coaches still are held to a higher standard than white coaches. It’s reached the point that the NFL makes MLB look progressive by comparison, which is hard to do.

Cleveland hired baseball’s first black manager, Frank Robinson, in 1975. There have been 16 Black managers since then. There are two now: Dusty Baker (Astros) and Dave Roberts (Dodgers).

Baker began his big league career during a time when about 20% of players were Black. The number of Black players in MLB has steadily declined and now about 10% of players are Black. Only a very small number of MLB managers never played in the big leagues (Braves skipper Brian Snitker is one of them).

By contrast, about 70% of the NFL players and more than half of NCAA football players are Black. The NFL has a much larger pool of Black coaching candidates than MLB. Yet baseball now has more Black people leading its teams on the field.

The NFL is doing better with giving Black professionals opportunities in the front office. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot is one of three Black executives who were hired to run football operations last year. That increased the number of Black GMs to five. Fontenot didn’t get to pick his coach because the Falcons already had decided to hire Arthur Smith.

Black head coaches were rare in the NFL before the Rooney Rule. That initiative led to an unprecedented number of opportunities for Black coaches. The Rooney Rule has been expanded over the years. Now teams are required to interview multiple minority candidates for head coach. GM and coordinator openings are not covered by the rule.

After all that, the NFL now has one Black head coach after two of them just got raw deals. Ultimately, NFL franchise owners decide who coaches their teams. They can co-opt anti-racist movements and put progressive slogans on the fields. They can’t escape the reality that racial bias in hiring and firing of coaches is on them.

They should be collectively ashamed. I doubt they are. The threat of legal action made them care in 2003. That’s one part of the league’s history on hiring Black coaches that I’d like to see repeated.


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