Roger Goodell Stumbles on Diversity in the NFL

Roger Goodell's jobs are to negotiate deals and take questions he can't answer. He's good at that but at the cost of NFL diversity and Black coaches.

PHOENIX — Roger Goodell’s two primary jobs are to negotiate television deals and take questions he can’t honestly answer. And he’s shown that he is phenomenal at that job.

On Wednesday, during his annual Super Bowl press conference, he took questions from assembled media, and his answers still reveal something about the state of the NFL and how they intend to approach important topics like diversity in hiring and latent racism embedded in the institution.

Roger Goodell Celebrated Black Hiring in Management, But Falls Short

The NFL estimates that 60 to 70 percent of its players are Black, but only three of its 32 head coach positions are filled with a Black head coach. As the hiring cycle continues, that can change once or twice.

Still, the fact remains that the initial increase in Black representation among the league’s most visible coaching position hasn’t sustained itself. Owners are still hiring white head coaches at a rate disproportionate to the overall player population and coaching population.

Goodell rightly was proud of the fact that the NFL Accelerator Program for front office personnel seemingly was successful when the Tennessee Titans decided to hire Ran Carthon as their general manager, an executive they met during the Accelerator Program.

There’s more in the works, according to Goodell. “We had a number of other programs that we put in that I think are going to produce long-term results,” he said. “We believe diversity makes us stronger. To me, that’s at the core of what we do. We want the changes to be fundamental, sound and sustainable.”

There are still issues with the management positions in the NFL being staffed with so few Black people. But the problem cannot be solved with stricter application or enforcement of the Rooney rule — a 2003 rule that requires NFL teams interview a minority candidate for their head coaching position before filling the role.

Since then, the rule has been expanded to include general managers (or equivalent position), coordinator positions, and the quarterbacks coach – traditionally a direct pipeline into coordinator or head coaching roles. The NFL has even increased the requirement for the head coaching position from one minority candidate to two.

But this doesn’t address more structural and fundamental issues – ones that Goodell is well aware of. Black coaches still remain less likely to ascend past the position coach level and are much less likely to retain their role as a head coach once they get there, according to a study published by the Washington Post.

Black head coaches have been fired at twice the rate of white head coaches with similar levels of performance. The Athletic pointed out that this could be a result of Black head coaches being saddled with worse quarterbacks, likely a product of various factors – like having less time to develop a quarterback, bad luck, and the higher likelihood that Black head coaches often end up with less attractive job offers and poorer situations.

The league can make any number of rules to make hiring seem more equitable. But it’s hard to imagine the league finding ways to make firings more equitable or find ways to make ascension past the position coach level easier for coaches mired in that spot for longer periods of time. But any solution will require being honest about the problem.

Roger Goodell Failed on the Question of Black Quarterbacks

Goodell was happy to point out that this would be the first Super Bowl with two starting Black quarterbacks, arguing that this was a perfect example of how diversity makes the NFL stronger.

He was willing to acknowledge that this accomplishment took too long to occur. However, his willingness to talk about this barrier and the history of quarterbacking seems to point to an understanding that this is a solved issue.

“There are probably a variety of reasons [this took so long],” said Goodell. “Probably none of them good. Because the reality is that there’s such great talent at that position.”

Goodell touted the fact that there are 11 Black starting quarterbacks in the league – a rate of 34.6 percent. This does not reflect the player pool at large, but it’s seemingly good enough to be somewhat frank about what prevented Black quarterbacks from ascending to a starting position in the past.

Certainly, the league has made progress. We’re not far removed from when Cam Newton was the number one overall pick in 2011, a successor to Michael Vick’s selection as first overall in 2001, a history-making moment. Lamar Jackson was selected in the first round, and both Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud are being considered as the top two picks in this year’s draft.

But “progress” is not the same as “problem solved,” and the fact that Black quarterbacks are discounted less than they used to be doesn’t mean they are not being discounted at all. If it is obvious that the best quarterback in the draft is Black, there’s a very good chance he’ll be selected at the top – that didn’t use to be the case.

More often than not, however, there isn’t that kind of clear winner. And when there isn’t clarity at the top of the draft, a commonality to the process, Black quarterbacks can still be devalued. We know that they’re devalued once they enter the NFL.

Black quarterbacks are benched sooner and more often than their white counterparts with similar levels of performance. Any model that can be constructed that predicts wins based on quarterback statistics – or benching – improves when adding the race of the quarterback into the equation.

Not only that, Black quarterbacks are paid less than their white counterparts after similar levels of performance. After benching, Black quarterbacks are less likely to get starting jobs in free agency, and Pro Bowls improve salary prospects for white quarterbacks but not Black quarterbacks.

It is the case that four of the top five highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL by average annual salary are Black. It is also the case that that isn’t proof that the problem has been solved – they have had to do more to get to the same position.

Roger Goodell Failed NFL Media

Pointedly, the NFL’s media arm also lacks Black people in prominent positions. As Jim Trotter pointed out to Goodell, “I’ve worked in NFL Media for five years. During those five years, we’ve never had a Black person in senior management in our newsroom.”

Not only did he emphasize that this degrades the quality of their coverage in an industry that is 60 to 70 percent Black, but he pointed out additional problems, adding, “More concerning is that for a year-plus now, we have never had a full-time Black employee on the newsdesk. I asked you about these things last year and what you told me is that the league has fallen short and that you will want to review all of your policies and practices to try and improve this. And yet a year later, nothing has changed.”

Added Trotter, “James Baldwin once said that I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do. So, I would ask you as an employee, when are we in the newsroom going to have a Black person in senior management and when will we have a full-time Black employee on the newsdesk?”

Goodell pointed out that he’s “not in charge of the newsroom,” a cop-out to the fact that the NFL that he commissions runs NFL media and has the power to change hiring practices. He touted their work with NFL vendors and partners to increase inclusiveness but also said, “I do not know specifically about the media business. We’ll check in again with our people but I am comfortable that we made significant progress across the league.”

Then Goodell followed up by questioning the veracity of the data presented by Trotter, arguing that last year his data was not accurate and that he would have to check in again on the accuracy of the data. It was a bold claim requiring extraordinary transparency, and it’s hard to believe given Trotter’s position in the company.

Diversity and inclusion mean more than just finding good, visible representation. As Goodell pointed out, having more voices in the room that have a direct understanding of the experiences that stakeholders have about decisions that are made about them means that those decisions will be better, more understanding, and more complete.

It means, as he says, “it makes the league stronger.”

It’s time the league starts acting like it.

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