Cronkite School panel examines lack of diversity among NFL coaches, possible solutions

Thursday, April 14, 2022


If the NFL is going to fix its diversity challenges with the lack of coaches of color, it’s going to start with the owners of the league’s 32 teams.

That was the consensus view expressed during a panel discussion last week with ASU Football head coach Herm Edwards, special advisor to the head coach Marvin Lewis, renowned sports journalist William C. Rhoden, and ASU Vice President for University Athletics and Athletics Director Ray Anderson at a special event hosted by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Cronkite School Dean Battinto L. Batts Jr. served as the moderator while representing Cronkite’s thriving sports journalism program.

The panel, “On The Clock & In the Media: Race, Hiring and the NFL,” covered a variety of topics associated with the NFL’s lack of diversity within its coaching ranks, including the role of the media and sports networks in covering these issues, and what will it take for NFL teams to change their practices.

The NFL is currently facing a lawsuit from former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is alleging racial discrimination in hiring processes across the league. On Thursday, the day of the panel, two other former coaches joined the lawsuit: former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks and former defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who was a head coach candidate for the Tennessee Titans.

Edwards coached the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, Lewis is the former head coach of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, and Anderson is a former NFL executive and agent. Rhoden, a visiting professor at the Cronkite School and writer-at-large at Andscape, is regarded as an expert on the topics of sports and race.

“The problem is that in ownership, unless you’re forced, you’re not going to do it,” Anderson said. “There’s not a lot of turnover in ownership at the NFL level over decades. The grandaddy, son, grandson, granddaughter, they all come up under the same beliefs, they all come under the same sense of entitlement, the same sense that, unless they look like us, they probably shouldn’t be leading us.”

Edwards posed the question of “who is in your huddle in life?,” emphasizing the importance of having diverse influences in one’s life. With the NFL owners, however, their influences tend to look like them and share the same experiences, he said.

“Make sure the people in your huddle don’t all look alike. You’ll never grow up. With the owners, they don’t want to grow,” he said.

The diversity among NFL players has grown in recent decades, but not with the coaches, which reflects a power dynamic between mostly white owners and mostly Black players.

“It’s like a merry-go-round and it’s about power and control. And the paradigm has been about Black labor and white wealth,” Rhoden said. “Where we are absolutely needed, where there’s no other choice, we’re overrepresented. But in those areas … head coach, general manager, that’s where we’re not in the seats of power.”

The panelists acknowledged the role of the media, including the relationship between the NFL and networks that pay for the rights to broadcast games, as well as the lack of diverse journalists covering this issue, and how sports broadcasters and journalists seem to only promote certain names of head coaches when reporting on coaching vacancies.

“They’re always hearing certain names and floating certain names all of the time and if there could ever be some kind of influence on that to make sure the qualified names are being floated, not the most popular,” Lewis said.

Ultimately, the networks are not going to stop signing television deals with the NFL just because the league won’t hire more diverse coaches. And the owners likely won’t care unless they start losing money.

“The highest value is money,” Rhoden said. “You’re talking about a morality that’s absent. The most you can do is write about that stuff.”

Despite the lack of progress with the stagnant number of diverse coaching hires, Edwards said it’s important to not get frustrated with the process. Although one Black coach may not get a job, it may open an opportunity for another coach in the future.

When Edwards was a head coach, he would seek out opposing Black coaches who may have interviewed for a job but were never hired, and he would thank them for creating a path for him, he said.

“There were a lot of coaches that were denied opportunities to become a head coach that looked like me,” he said. “You might not get the job, but somebody following you might get the job.”

On The Clock & In the Media: Race, Hiring and the NFL. Photos by Kiersten Moss. Cronkite School on Flickr