February is supposed to be the pinnacle of football excellence. Next Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals will return to the Super Bowl after 33 years behind second-year phenomenon Joe Burrow to play the LA Rams and Matthew Stafford, who has never been to the big game in his 13 years in the league. Keeping with the theme of football excellence, fans, players and the media will no doubt express gratitude to Tom Brady, who this week announced his retirement after 22 years in the NFL and had arguably the greatest career the game has ever seen.
Still, the magic of the moment is lost to myself and my Black colleagues. We watch our white counterparts rightly win praise for the success that they have earned. We Black coaches and players, on the other hand, have to fight twice as hard to get half as far. We saw it with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to bring awareness to social injustice against Black and brown people, and subsequently being blackballed from the league despite leading his team to the Super Bowl just a few years prior. Colin hoped to highlight the fact that that though we are all created equal, we are not all treated equally, and that needs to change.
Now Brian Flores has taken up the same fight on the coaching side. Flores is suing the NFL over racial discrimination in an environment that he likens to “a plantation”, with rich white team owners profiting from the labor of young Black men. Flores’ lawsuit clearly struck a note and another Black coach, Hue Jackson, has come forward with his own allegations of discrimination (as well as claiming he was offered bonuses if his team lost).
In a league focused on statistics like yards, touchdowns, sacks, and interceptions it’s easy to find numbers that back up Flores and Jackson’s claims of systemic racism. The NFL’s Rooney Rule states that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies. But, as Flores details in his lawsuit, these interviews are often undertaken with little chance of the minority candidate getting the job. The proof? When the Rooney Rule was instituted 20 years ago there were three Black head coaches in the NFL. Now there is one. More than a quarter of NFL teams have never even had a Black head coach. That includes one of the franchises named in Flores’ lawsuit, the New York Giants, who have existed for nearly 100 years in one of the most diverse cities on earth.
It’s incredible that such a rule – whether it is effective or not – is needed in a league where more than two-thirds of players are Black. The imbalance leads players like me to the conclusion that, as Black people, we are valued by the league when we put our bodies and health on the line as players. But as soon as we offer our minds and leadership as coaches we are cast aside. We, as Black people, can be all things: players, coach, and owner; though an NFL team has never had all three at the same time.
Having a leader with the same background and experiences as yourself is helpful. At the same time Black players are happy to play for white coaches if they are good leaders – no one could deny the skills of Bill Belichick, Andy Reid or Sean McVay. But we want to see that the NFL gives everyone the same chance of becoming a leader. The most significant currency in any sport, as with society as a whole, is opportunity. And as Black History Month starts, it appears that in the NFL if you’re a Black coach, you’re soon history.
Earlier this season, we got a peek into the bigoted conversations that happen off the field when leaked emails showed former Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and other NFL figures using racist, homophobic and misogynistic language. And take it from someone who played in the league: we can be sure that those emails were a small glimpse into the mindset of many in football.
When the next generation – my nephews or my future children – come to me and ask to play football, what will my reaction be? Will I be confident that whatever they put into the sport will be paid back? Or will I recoil and prepare them for the discriminatory and challenging road that a love of sports may subject them to? I find strength in the Black players, coaches, and people fighting to make the league a more inclusive place for all. Still, as with any movement, there needs to be allyship. Why are marginalized voices often asked to change systems of oppression that we did not create?
Looking back on my time in the NFL, I wish I had done more to fight for justice off the field, as I fought for my teammates on the field. But I have hope. I choose to believe that as brave men like Flores come forward that the NFL, which I love so much, will continue to grow. This is not the same league that it was at its founding when Black players were banned from competing in the 1930s and 1940s. And regardless of this particular dispute, it will not be the same league moving forward.
If you show up to play or coach and are qualified, respectful, hardworking, and team-oriented, you should be rewarded. I think we can all agree that we want to get what we have earned. I hope that as we lend our voices through essays, interviews, protests, platforms and donations, we can all agree on one thing: we as humans were all created equally and thus should be treated equally.
If you’re a leader, you should have the chance to lead.