Opinion: Negative portrayals of Black NFL coaches fuel questions of media bias

Jarrett Bell

With another NFL hiring cycle in full swing, it’s a perfect time for a quick review: During the past four hiring cycles, three of the 27 head coach openings were filled by Black men.

Last year, only the last of the seven jobs was filled by a Black coach – and David Culley is already gone now, fired last week by the Houston Texans in a one-and-done job.

So, with eight jobs now vacant, questions persist.

“Why do the hiring patterns continue to discriminate against people of color?” asked Dr. Keith Harrison, director of the Paul Robeson Research Center for Innovative Academic & Athletic Prowess at the University of Central Florida.

Harrison has researched NFL trends and other racial and cultural issues for years. Like many others, he is perplexed by the NFL’s sorry track record when it comes to hiring Black coaches. He also wonders whether image and perceptions of Black candidates and existing head coaches portrayed by media create a barrier.

“Perception is reality,” Harrison maintained during an interview with USA TODAY Sports.

The professor led a research project that was released in December, titled, “Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Media bias and narratives of NFL coaches.” It explores whether stereotypes play a role in the occupational mobility for Black coaches.

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The study examined written content published by traditional print media and web-based outlets, collecting descriptors used to discuss and depict NFL coaches. More than 330 articles posted online were analyzed from the beginning of the 2021 preseason through the week of Dec. 5, with content involving 96 head coaches and coordinators. Among the findings:

►Coaches were written about in a “positive” manner with the same frequency regardless of race, as the content that involved white coaches (81.1%) was similar to that for coaches of color (82%).

►Descriptors such as “struggling” and “fail” were utilized more when media described coaches of color.

►Non-white coaches were discussed and dissected in more detail negatively at a greater rate than their white counterparts.

Harrison contends that the research, which doesn’t account for the most dominant medium, television, plays into a larger theme that victimizes Black coaches in a league where more than 70% of the players are Black.

David Culley was fired after one season as the Texans head coach.

“Black males, compared to white males, are not seen as leaders first,” Harrison said. “You can’t get hired to run a team if you’re not seen as a leader. And if you are hired, it ends up leading to quicker firings.”

Given the numbers, there’s certainly merit for examining whether stereotypes factor into the hiring equation. Then again, haven’t we been here for a while?

“Once upon a time, we didn’t think Black quarterbacks could handle the position,” Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told USA TODAY Sports. “Now, with the way the game has changed, they may have an advantage. The mindset is different.

“So, this is not a new topic. It’s just interesting that it’s still part of the conversation.”

The Harrison-led study was ambitious, reminiscent of previous studies over many years that examined differences in the portrayals of athletes based on race. Yet this study is unique in that it focused solely on the coaching industry. Harrison allows that additional layers can come with a broader study that includes television. He said that anecdotally, from watching broadcasts of NFL games, he has seen more cases of white candidates being promoted for jobs by announcers (who are overwhelmingly white) than minority candidates.

“Let’s call it what it is,” Harrison said. “We’re talking about Black men. Societal portrayals have been historically negative for decades.”

Curious, I watched six NFL games from the 2021 regular season involving teams with high-profile coaching candidates, trying to assess patterns in how they are presented. While there are various methods for candidates to be discussed on television (including talk shows or news programs, for instance), it is standard for broadcasts of NFL games to include mention of the top assistants and typically, their prospects for promotion.

Generally, it’s a mixed bag, but there are seemingly favorites who are promoted more positively. In some cases, the banter is more extensive. Sometimes, the flow of the games dictates how discussions of coaches are framed. But it’s always there in some fashion, either overtly or subtly.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy before the team's game against the Denver Broncos in January.

Of the six games that I observed, no one had a stronger endorsement for a head coach than Tony Romo, pushing for Todd Bowles, a Black man who coordinates the Bucs defense. Said Romo: “I think he’s the next head coach you should be looking for … He’s going to be successful wherever he’s at.”

Does such a strong testimony really matter?

“In a word, no,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian told USA TODAY Sports.

Polian hired five head coaches during his accomplished NFL career, including two Black men, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell. He said that he worked off a checklist in sizing up candidates that aimed heavily on trying to get a feel for how football details would be handled. He scoffed when asked whether the attention and hype surrounding a candidate factored into the equation.

“There’s nothing that buzz or spin can add to it,” Polian insisted. In seeking input regarding candidates, he added, “I don’t have the TV on. I don’t read the newspapers.”

Still, it’s hardly a stretch to think that some NFL owners view the hiring of a coach as an opportunity to inspire the fan base, coinciding with the idea of adding expertise. Think about the buzz generated in early 2021 when Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan (the only non-white NFL owner) tapped Urban Meyer to try reviving the franchise.

It turns out that Meyer wasn’t the answer, fired in less than one-and-done.

Graves, who heads an organization that monitors and promotes equal opportunity for NFL coaches and executives, still wonders whether the standards used to assess Black coaches are consistent with the scale for whites.

“It has always appeared the requirements are different,” said Graves, whose long NFL journey included an 11-year stint as GM of the Arizona Cardinals. “We used to say that we always had to work harder, stay longer, be more prepared. Whatever standards were used, we always felt we were under a different microscope. This topic is not new.”

Still, perhaps more scrutiny on how candidates are portrayed – with patterns weighed against the backdrop of race – will help raise consciousness about the need for a level playing field of opportunity.

Given the dismal trends, it surely can’t hurt.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell