Today’s guest columnist is DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association.
The NFL’s admission of its problem regarding diversity and its willingness to adopt systemic solutions are two different things. With respect to the first, there is an obvious and abysmal record in hiring and retaining diverse executive talent across the NFL. Equally problematic is the absence and resistance to adopting a standardized and comprehensive accountability system that is designed to remedy the problem. This cycle is fueled by the complicity of those (whether deliberately or by ignorance) who rely on the charity and goodwill of the NFL owners to provide a fair, non-discriminatory workplace.
The players have a contractual relationship with the owners that, yes, includes an anti-discrimination clause. It resulted from collective bargaining, which in turn exists because of a union, a union that started with men making a decision to sacrifice and risk their careers to force their recognition under the law. Like any contractual relationship, it is not perfect, but players decided that relying on goodwill in the hope of good things was a fool’s errand. We battle the desire of the NFL owners to control outcomes by collective action and hold them accountable to our agreement at every opportunity.
In retrospect both the creation of and reliance on the “Rooney Rule” 20 years ago was misguided at best. The people who trumpeted its creation traded a threatened lawsuit for a “rule” with no consequences if it was broken, no transparency, and no accountability. In short, the Rooney “rule” was more of a suggestion and left absolute control to the individual NFL owners. How could we have faith in a process where the machinations occur in the dark and with those who have had a track record of opposing anything that conflicts with their desire for control? Rather than insisting on a structured process, the Rooney Rule creators and defenders chose blind faith and hope.
So here at the tail end of another hiring season, we find ourselves in another similar cycle. On one hand, we have a coach who is challenging the sham of a rule, but on the other, we have silence from a Coaches Association that is run by a person with ties to the league. We see a willingness, but also a weakness, of an Alliance designed to help coaches of color, but which has its hands tied because it is almost entirely supported by the NFL itself. The only surprise is that people are surprised at where we are during Black History Month in 2022.
We at least have a brave NFL executive in Troy Vincent who admits to a double standard for black coaches, and a former coach in Brian Flores who put his name on a lawsuit. I take his word that, like many of our union legends, this case is not about himself, but that this is about helping people who come after him who he will never meet.
The lawsuit will run its course and hopefully provide a larger window into the clubs’ actions with respect to Flores’ process and other candidates of the past. But the lawsuit alone will not achieve change; the NFL knows how to “swallow” controversy by token changes, and they will employ the legions of defenders to rubberstamp solutions. I have no doubt that there are many in the league office who care deeply about this issue and work daily to recommend solutions, but the only real option with a chance is one that divests individual owners of absolute control.
Take our organization as an example. I take intentional steps to ensure our workforce and leadership is diverse and our recruiting process leads to serious consideration of candidates from varied backgrounds. As a result, we are proud that the NFLPA has one of the most diverse staffs not just in all of sports, but of any organization our size; over 75% of our staff is made up of people of color and/or women, and the same population makes up over 65% of our leadership. The people we contract with are diverse, they know what our objectives are, and we critique them on how well they are providing a diverse workplace.
Since 2009 our union has been an outspoken proponent of a few simple, but important, principles that we believe can bring about real change and diversity across our business. All of those principles are rooted in eliminating the control of individual owners to dictate our collective destiny by insisting on a transparent process that resembles the hiring protocols of nearly every Fortune 500 company. The best starting point is transparency in both information and opportunity. Currently, there is no centralized place for job descriptions, open positions and coaches’ salary and benefit information. None of us know what a competitive or equitable marketplace for the coaching ranks looks like, which makes candidates overly reliant on a handful of power agents to broker a deal.
All of this exists because NFL clubs do not want accountability, they want autonomy. Accordingly, they reject transparency, and as a result a person’s last name has a greater impact on hiring decisions than qualifications. The practice of giving lip service to these principles of fairness and equality needs to end. To paraphrase James Baldwin, we find ourselves in a world where people of color cannot be pacified, ignored and the attempts to exile us from business are resisted. Brave people will step into this breach and demand change, and we will join them.
Smith, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, has been executive director of the NFLPA since 2009.