Why Does The NFL Have Such An Abysmal Record On Coach Diversity?

George B. Cunningham, Texas A&M University

Two weeks after the NFL regular season ended, there are only one black coach and one Latino coach left in the league — Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Ron Rivera of the Washington Soccer team, respectively. It comes on the heels of the Houston Texans shooting Brian Flores by the Miami Dolphins and David Cooley.

In other words, in a league where most players are black, 30 of the 32 coaches are white.

I have studied diversity and inclusion in sports for more than two decades, including the ways in which race and gender intersect to influence driving opportunities for women and men. My research shows that biased decision making, organizational cultures that value similarity, and societal forms of bias and discrimination all account for the lack of diversity among NFL coaches.

Exclusion date

The dismal numbers are not new. In 1989, Art Shell became the first black coach for an NFL team in the modern era. But his appointment hasn’t broken down the barriers that other minority coaches in the NFL face.

Hall of Famer Art Shell was the first black coach in the NFL.
Photo by Kirby Lee/NFLPhotoLibrary

Seeking to address the issue of diversity, the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, which requires teams to interview at least two minority candidates in their head coach’s openers. In 2021, the league expanded the base to include general managers and offensive and defensive coordinators.

The policy had positive effects in the short term, as the league saw an increase in black and Latino coaches. But the gains have since waned, and the number of black coaches at the start of the 2021 season, three, was the same as in 2003.

In short, the NFL is back where it started.

When looking for explanations, it is useful to explore factors at the individual, organizational, and societal levels. Research evidence shows that some of these explanations are better than others.

individual factors

At the individual level, people may not get a job if they lack skills or experience, have no connections or do not advance. However, there is no consistent evidence that any of these interpretations describe black coaches.

For example, scientists found that black assistant coaches in college football were less likely to be promoted and had lower career satisfaction than their white counterparts, but neither was related to the coaches’ experience, skills, or social networks. This is the case in the NFL as well, where sports economists have also shown that black assistant coaches have the same skills as their white counterparts.

Other researchers analyzed NFL data from 1985 to 2018 and found no racial differences in the performance of head coaches.

In short, there is no evidence that black coaches are unqualified.

NFL coach Ron Rivera speaks to a referee.
Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team is the only Latino coach in the NFL.
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Organizations and leaders

On the other hand, research shows that leaders and organizations make a difference in who gets hired. For example, an analysis by the World Athletic Institute at Arizona State University shows that seven NFL teams have hired only white coaches.

The types of jobs that black coaches can access are also important. Offensive and defensive coordinators are often in line for key coaching opportunities. But research at the NFL and NCAA levels reliably shows that white coaches are well represented in coveted coordinator positions.

What is referred to as the “glass shelf” offers another regulatory explanation. This theory suggests that members of underrepresented groups are more likely to be employed by organizations that have a history of poor performance or are in crisis. When performance continues to decline, leaders are more likely to be replaced by members of the majority group. Researchers have shown that race and racism also influence the glass cliff, including leaders in sports. For white coaches, less fortunate men’s basketball coaches were more likely to be assigned to teams with a history of losing, and if they couldn’t turn things around, they would likely be replaced by white coaches.

These examples clearly show that leaders make a difference. A study by the Las Vegas Raiders illustrates this point further. Under former General Manager Reggie Mackenzie, who is black, the Raiders had the highest share of black players in the league, at 79.2%. In 2016, when McKenzie won the NFL Executive of the Year award, Raiders also had the highest share of black coaches, at 82.3%.

Jon Gruden on the sidelines.
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was fired during the 2021 season after it was revealed he sent racist and anti-gay emails.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After the 2018 season, the Raiders sacked McKenzie and brought in a white coach, Jon Gruden, and a white general manager, Mike Mayock. The percentage of black players has decreased every year since then. In 2021, in one of the most damaging blows for the NFL in recent memory, Groden was fired for making racist and homophobic comments after analyzing thousands of emails sent to NFL executives and others. MacKenzie was fired after the season, too. At the same time, the percentage of black players on the Raiders roster has fallen to 67.2%.

Although the Raiders study focused on gamers, regulation scientists have consistently shown that people are more likely to hire others of the same race. Bias among decision makers can affect the diversity of an organisation.

Systematic racism

Finally, societal factors make a difference, the most prevalent of which are the systematic forms of racism, which means racial bias at the community, state and national level. Societal factors reflect people’s collective racial prejudices, as well as racist laws, policies, and standards embedded in societies’ institutions.

The focus on systemic racism moves beyond individual actors and prioritizes societal patterns of bias and discrimination. For example, a colleague and I have shown that racism at the county level is predictive of fan reactions to Black Lives Matter protests by NFL players.

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Systemic racism has a lasting effect that can affect people years later. Researchers have shown that the counties most dependent on slavery in the 1860s also have high levels of racism today. As systemic racism increased in these counties, the poverty rates of the black population increased and their social mobility decreased.

Given the impact of systemic racism on all elements of society, it is not surprising that NFL coaches, Analysts And scholars—including those working in media studies, sports studies, sociology, sports management, and the behavioral sciences—point to systemic racism as the reason for the shortage of black coaches in the league.

The evidence is clear: organizations, their leaders, and systemic racism all contribute. Until structural change occurs, the pattern will continue.


George B. Cunningham, Professor of Sports Management, Texas A&M University

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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