The NFL still has a Diversity Issue at the Head Coaching Level

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL still has a Diversity Issue at the Head Coaching Level


The NFL still has a Diversity Issue at the Head Coaching Level


Every year on the Monday after the last game of the season, NFL teams typically get rid of their head coach. Always seeking greener pastures, the list of names as replacements are common. However, what they normally aren’t, are people of color.

In 2023, approximately 57.5% of National Football League players were people of color, a drop from 2020 when 69.4% of National Football League players were of color, a decrease of 3.2% from 2016. With the current metric of 57.5%, Whites 24.9%, Hispanics or Latinos 0.4%, Asians 0.1%, Pacific Islanders 1.6%, and American Indian 0.2%, professional football has a fair mix of talent and representation.

For a league dominated at both the college and professional level with players of color, the ‘trickle-up’ of hiring head coaches to NFL jobs remains elusive for the single biggest block of talent in the league. In the latest 2022 Racial and Gender Report Card, the TIDES grade for hiring, there were six people of color in the head coaching ranks: 

Lovie Smith – Houston Texans

Mike McDaniel – Miami Dolphins 

Ron Rivera – Washington Commanders 

Robert Saleh – New York Jets

Todd Bowles – Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

In the 2022 report, the Racial Hiring Grade for Head Coaches had jumped to ‘C’. It’s an improvement, but the spirit of the Rooney Rule remains an unrealized promise of hiring when only interviewing is what organizations and owners do when filing their head coach position.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in Carolina. The Panthers parted ways with interim head coach Steve Wilks. Wilks assumed the position after Matt Rhule was fired early in the 2022 season. Wilks did the unthinkable and turned around a 1-4 team and coached them to contention for a division in the last two weeks of the season. Instead Carolina hired Frank Reich, most recently the head coach for the Indianapolis Colts. Reich is a good hire, and given the foundation already set for him, moving the needle in 2023 should be within reach. Additionally, the NFC South is no juggernaut, that too will help.

The question is why doesn’t Steve Wilks get his shot? Mind you that on his watch, the Panthers traded away wide receiver Robbie Anderson and more importantly, running back Christian McCaffrey. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was injured with an ankle injury, forcing a round-robin of signal callers like Sam Darnold, Matt Corral and P.J. Walker. Walker likely would have been relegated to the practice squad under normal circumstances.

Wilks overachieved and still did not get the job. How serious he was being considered is only something Carolina owner David Tepper can answer. 

This is all too often the story. Don’t forget Wilks was fired after one bad season with a bad roster in Arizona. The Cardinals immediately drafted a Heisman Trophy winner in Kyler Murray and then hired a college coach with a losing record in Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury, for those of you keeping score, lost the Cardinals job after the season ended. So now Arizona is back on the head coaches clock and it’s any guess who they hire. 

They will have the pick of some excellent options: Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay. Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator at Kansas City. Raheem Morris, defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams. 

DeMeco Ryans, who was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers was hired on Tuesday afternoon to become the head coach of the Houston Texans, replacing Lovie Smith. Also of note on Tuesday is the Denver Broncos hiring Sean Payton, long a rumor but now a reality. Ryans had ties to the Broncos and the Colts. Indianapolis is still linked to Jeff Saturday and has received a second interview. No coach of color has been interviewed for that opening.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

On February 1, 2022, the New York Times did a long piece on former NFL head coach Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL claiming Bias. That piece was followed up on February 9, 2022 titled, “Does the N.F.L. Have a Race Problem?”

The Undefeated wrote that from 2009 to 2018, non-white head coaches were given much shorter tenures than their white counterparts. They were also less likely to land a second head coaching gig after getting fired. 

The league has been well aware of the challenges owners present when hiring and firing head coaches of race. The NFL created a committee steered by Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Rooney Rule was born. It was also accepted by all teams. However, 19 years later, the league hasn’t changed, white coaches are recycled like a used-car lot, and coaches of color remain on the outside looking in.

Most concede that it’s not an easy fix. You can’t force people to change a preconceived thought process. You also can’t tell them what to do with their teams. At the State of the League, which commissioner Roger Goodell hosts during Super Bowl week, he will admit the problem, what they are trying to do to fix it, and then hope the conversation goes away, as it usually does. For Raheem Morris, Byron Leftwich, Eric Bieniemy and the host of black assistants waiting for their shot, they are left with waiting for the better angels of an owner’s nature for an opportunity. That date still hasn’t arrived.


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