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Upstairs and Downstairs

Jun 4 2020
Jun 4 2020

Over the past nine years, I’ve played for four different NFL franchises.

And on four different teams, in four different cities, working out of four different buildings, I’ve noticed a similar divide: There’s upstairs, where the coaches, general managers and scouts have their offices, and downstairs, where you’ll find the locker rooms and the players.

Now the difference between upstairs and downstairs isn’t just management vs. labor — not if you’re a black player. The best way to put it is that, if you’re a black player in an NFL locker room, then you know that upstairs isn’t exactly a place where you feel welcome. And statistically speaking, the reason why is obvious.

In our league, 70% of the players are black. But “upstairs,” among the 32 NFL franchises, there are just three black coaches, two black general managers, two black offensive coordinators and no black majority owners.

This of course isn’t a new phenomenon. And it’s also not unique to the NFL. Among the 130 FBS college football programs, there are just 13 black coaches. Personally speaking, I’ve been playing football since I was in middle school — 19 years — and in that time, I’ve never had a black head coach. And I know many of my peers have had the same experience.

If you’re a football fan, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard of the Rooney Rule. Introduced in December 2002, the rule dictates that NFL teams must interview at least one minority candidate before filling their head-coaching vacancies. The first season after the rule went into effect there were three black coaches in the NFL. If that number sounds familiar, it’s because, yes, it’s the exact same number of black coaches as are in the league today.

Initially, many people thought the Rooney Rule was a success. By 2006 the number of African American coaches had steadily risen to seven and that same season, both teams in the Super Bowl were coached by black men. History was made. But the success of these black coaches didn’t lead to a trend of more teams hiring AfricanAmericans. In fact, the exact opposite happened. The number of black head coaches topped out at eight and then declined all the way down to the three we have today. Ultimately, the same biases that led to dismal hiring in the first place won out.

So given that, it’s fair to say the Rooney Rule has been a failure. In a tacit acknowledgement of this fact, the NFL implemented a few incremental changes to the rule in the weeks following this year’s draft. One of the proposals (which was eventually tabled) included incentivizing teams with improved draft positions if they hired and retained a minority head coach or general manager. It was the logic behind this particular recommendation that really bothered me. It wasn’t just ineffective but in my view it contributed to the underlying problem itself.

The issue is clearly the perception that black people aren’t smart enough, skilled enough, or don’t have the leadership skills necessary to be the head coach of a football team. Studies have found that black head coaches outperform their white counterparts — averaging 2.6 more wins in their first season, and 1.2 more wins in seasons where they were eventually fired. Essentially, based on the data, hiring a black coach isn’t a handicap at all — and certainly not an action that should be rewarded with a superior draft position. They perform better and are more likely to be fired — and that’s something that reflects a certain bias among those making the hiring decisions at the very top of these organizations. It’s a bias that might be unconscious, but it’s palpable, and I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

When I served on the executive committee for the NFLPA in 2018, I got to sit in rooms with multiple NFL owners. And while I mostly enjoyed my interactions with them, the experience also highlighted why the issue of African-American coaches hasn’t been resolved. Many of the owners talked about the players, the majority of whom are black, as if they were statistics. Some scoffed at our injuries and rolled their eyes at our concerns. It was as if they felt we were wasting their time. The message was, essentially, We’re the owners, you’re the players. Get used to it.

Across the board, NFL owners are white men who exist in bubbles in which they’re predominantly surrounded by other white men. This isn’t all that surprising, just given basic psychology. Oftentimes these bubbles aren’t created as a result of overt racism, but rather unconscious bias that probably exists in all of us to some extent. Some studies show that people are more likely to associate positive qualities to those who look or sound like themselves. This would obviously include those belonging to the same social or ethnic group. But when a person coming from a closed-off, predominantly white bubble is also responsible for amending and ratifying changes to the Rooney Rule, well, that doesn’t seem like a recipe for positive change.

I recently went on First Take to discuss the NFL’s failures with the Rooney Rule, and to propose some solutions. But the reason I’m writing this isn’t to rehash my appearance. I’m writing this because of what happened right after I appeared on the show.

I felt my phone buzz. It was a call from a black NFL front-office employee who told me he’d been passed up for jobs in favor of white candidates with less experience numerous times.

Then I got a call from a black position coach. He told me he had experienced the same thing.

And the calls kept coming.

With each conversation, something became very clear: The people actually affected by this discrimination haven’t been offered a voice.


Photos via NFL

To understand why the Rooney Rule has been a failure, it’s worth understanding why it came into existence in the first place.

The first black head coach in NFL history was Fritz Pollard. That was something I didn’t know until I looked it up recently. In 1921, as both a player and a co-coach, he led the Akron Pros to a record of 8–3–1. It wasn’t until 1989, 64 years after Pollard coached his last game in 1925, that Art Shell became the second black coach to be hired by an NFL team. Sixty-four years.

In 2002, two civil rights attorneys commissioned a study that showed that, despite outperforming their white counterparts by almost every metric, African-American coaches in the NFL were less likely to get hired and more likely to get fired. In response to this study (and in an obvious effort to prevent potential lawsuits), the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule.

And while the rule’s failure after 17 seasons can be determined pretty easily based on the numbers — the coaches affected by its failure aren’t just numbers. They’re real people with real stories. And what made this issue truly hit home for me was hearing from a few of them firsthand. They worked with different teams in different roles but they all had similar experiences. And they all had a similar tone of frustration in their voices as they shared their stories.

One guy who reached out to me serves as the director of player engagement (DPE) for an NFL Team. Every team has a DPE, though some teams call it something else. It’s generally considered the lowest management position in an organization — in most places, the DPE’s office is downstairs. Also, like in most places, this DPE was black. If you’re wondering what a DPE does exactly, according to many coaches and GMs I’ve heard speaking, the DPE is a guy who can “relate” to players. For most organizations, the DPEs serve as buffers between black players and white management — between upstairs and downstairs.

“You gotta understand how these guys view y’all,” he told me. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things they say about you guys. It’s appalling.”

This guy has been in the same position with his organization for almost 20 years, without ever having moved up the ladder. This really bothered me. If an employee is good enough to work at your company for nearly two decades, it seems only logical that he’s good enough to be promoted at least once.

I also got a call from an assistant GM — another African-American, who wants to be a GM, but who has been passed over several times. He told me about how, after he helped construct a playoff team, he was interviewed by another organization to be their general manager. It went great — they even told him during the interview that he was the best candidate for the job. He thought he was poised to get the gig until he got a call from the team telling him, basically, thanks, but the job had already been promised to someone else. Someone white.

“I had no shot,” he said. “Man, some of these teams have never had a black head coach or general manager. They’ve never had a black coordinator or personnel director either. All I’m asking for is a fair chance. The same opportunity that some of these other guys get. No matter what I do, I keep getting passed up.”

Another guy, a position coach, had the same story. Multiple years served with winning organizations, and multiple instances of being passed over for promotions that went to candidates who were white.

Hearing these stories made me reflect on my own experiences. I got a pretty good glimpse early on in my career of how the system works — and why change takes time.

''All I’m asking for is a fair chance. The same opportunity that some of these other guys get. Yet, it seems like no matter what I do, I keep on getting passed up.”

At the end of one season early in my career, I went to the team facility for exit interviews. I had a meeting scheduled with my position coach before I was to meet with the head coach. Both coaches were white.

Going into the meeting with my position coach, my goal was to get feedback on what I could do during the off-season to improve. I didn’t come into the league as a high draft pick, so getting that type of information was really valuable for me when it came to competing to keep my roster spot.

So my goal was professional feedback, but what actually happened during the meeting was something much different.

“Sam,” the position coach began, “you’re very well-respected around the building. Everybody thinks highly of you, including the head coach.” I figured that was a good start. But then he continued, “Do me a favor and put in a good word for me, will ya?”

I thought he might be joking.

“You know this whole thing is based on who you know,” he said. “It would mean the world to me if you could just do me this favor. And don’t worry, I’ll pay it back down the line.”

He wasn’t joking.

And at that point, I didn’t know what to do. I honestly didn’t believe he was a good coach. But if I didn’t put in a good word, could that potentially come back to hurt my career? Also, maybe I had some personal bias and he actually was a good coach. So I decided to ask another coach on staff what he thought of the guy’s abilities — and what he told me basically cut to the core of everything.

“You don’t have to worry about putting in a good word,” he said, trying to reassure me. “That guy’s already got the job. He’s friends with the head coach. That’s how he got here in the first place. He’ll keep advancing and be exposed for the coach he is.”

He was right. That assistant would go on to become a coordinator for another team. And he ultimately failed because he performed as poorly as he had as a position coach. But still, he got the opportunity because of who he knew, not what he could do. And even after being fired, he got another opportunity to work for a different NFL team — a team coached by a guy he knows.

And that was when I realized that, beyond the obvious problematic biases tied to why coaches hire their friends rather than the most qualified candidate available — from a business perspective — this general practice simply isn’t conducive to success. Ask any NFL player, and they’ll tell you that there are a shocking number of coaches in the league who stay employed because they put their focus and energy toward maintaining the connection that got them their jobs — rather than schemes, making their players better or even winning. And with so many organizations stocked with coaches who have this mentality, it’s no wonder minority coaches who are outsiders have trouble breaking through.

So I decided to do something that I realize the vast majority of owners probably haven’t done: I asked the black coaches and front office personnel who reached out to me — the ones who had been passed over time and time again — what they would change about the Rooney Rule.

And their responses kind of surprised me.


Photos via NFL

The most common solution presented wasn’t related to draft-pick compensation or extra slots for interviews.

It was much simpler.

“We need a chance to be in the room with these owners to show them that we’re capable leaders,” said one assistant GM who has been passed over before.

A frustrated position coach told me essentially the same thing. “We need an opportunity to get in the door and be considered.”

Taking into account the ideas presented to me, as well as my own experiences, these are some of the steps I would take to begin to improve the NFL’s issues with minority hiring. 

  1. Diversity Training 

Ultimately, owners are the ones who hire and fire GMs and coaches. In this capacity, they’ve clearly failed when it comes to minority hiring. Given that they oversee a league in which the majority of the players are a different race than they are, it seems clear they need training in diversity and bias to further expand their perspectives. 

  1. A Symposium for Minority Candidates 

Owners need exposure to capable African-American coaching and general manager candidates. Like I said before, I’ve been in the room with many of these owners and often they live in their own (predominantly white) bubble. To break through this, there needs to be a symposium where each franchise selects two minority head-coaching candidates and two GM candidates from within its ranks and sends them to the NFL owners meeting in June for a symposium.

During this symposium, the minority candidates would not only get valuable face time with executives from other organizations, but also the opportunity to ask the owners directly what they’re looking for in a hire. This was an idea several of the people I spoke to thought would be productive. But it’s not perfect, in part because of just how deeply ingrained this problem is.

“The only thing I’m afraid of is that there won’t be enough candidates available for teams to send,” one assistant told me. “For many franchises, the pool is too small.”

  1. A Pipeline to Quality Control Positions

“Quality Control positions are the hardest to get,” one position coach told me. “Most teams have four quality control coaches, and those positions rarely go to minorities. At least two of them should. I’m getting passed over by Division III coaches who have no NFL experience.”

In the NFL, being a QC coach isn’t necessarily a glamorous job. But it’s still highly coveted because it’s often the first area coaching staffs look to when promoting from within. Ensuring that qualified minority candidates are in these positions would have a huge effect on the commitment of organizations to fostering diversity.

  1. Listen

This basically encapsulates the goal of the first three proposals. If the NFL wants to do better, it should make more of an effort to reach out to and listen to those who have been caught up in this flawed system.

Every person who reached out to me, many of whom have decades of experience in the NFL, had thoughts on how things could improve. Their voices are the ones that should be guiding the next steps we take.

This isn’t a problem that’s unique to the NFL by any stretch. It exists all around corporate America — where, uncoincidentally, many NFL owners made their fortunes. In recent years, several big law firms have instituted their own version of the Rooney Rule in response to the dismal number of minority hires in the legal profession. Last year, 93% of venture-capital firms did not report having any black investment partners. All around the U.S. there are examples of the divide between “upstairs” and “downstairs.”

Up to this point, the league itself admits that it has failed in this area. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. The NFL has an opportunity, if it wants to take it, to set an example for the wider world.

One of our league’s greatest assets is its diversity. We have players from all different races, religions and backgrounds, who work together toward a common goal. The future of the league depends on it truly embracing that diversity — in how it hires, in how it promotes and in how it fosters new ideas.

The hiring practices of the NFL trickle down to lower levels of football. The League has an influence on our culture as a whole. If there’s going to be change, this is the perfect place to start.

Systemic racism does exist all around us. It’s usually not easy to see — and sometimes obfuscated with meaningless “rules” — but if you ask the right people and have a willingness to listen, you’ll definitely hear about it. Listening and learning is the first step to change.

And if we continue to work toward breaking some of these systems, then maybe, one day soon, upstairs and downstairs will just be different floors in a building.