Opinion: NFL’s MLK Jr. tributes ring hollow as Black coaches remain subjected to unfair hiring practices

Mike Jones
USA TODAY

A round of slow claps for the NFL and its 32 teams for their displays of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. 

What unity the social media departments of each squad showed in either tweeting commemorative posts of their own or retweeting commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement of how “proud” the league is to “celebrate the life and legacy” that the late civil rights leader provided in his life and death. 

How lovely that the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams players wore “MLK” stickers on their helmets during Monday night’s playoff game. 

How admirable that the league’s Inspire Change charity is partnering with Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King and the King Center, to strengthen communities to whom both minister. 

Finally, the NFL gets it. Or something like that. 

The NFL’s teams are indeed helping fund meaningful work by their players by donating millions of dollars a year to grassroots organizations focused on combating social injustice, educational challenges and improving career advancement for people of color. 

But can we stop acting like the NFL’s owners care about equality and creating opportunities for people of color? Sure, some of them do. But they are in the minority. 

Brian Flores spent three seasons as coach of the Dolphins.

For most, all of the above can be classified as lip service. Because when it comes down to it, the NFL remains a good ol' boys club rich in nepotism and discriminatory hiring practices.

At the time the NFL slapped those commemorative stickers on helmets and flooded social media with obligatory tweets, the number of coaches of color had plunged. As it stands, one Black man (Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin), one Latino (Washington’s Ron Rivera) and one of Lebanese descent (New York Jets' Robert Saleh) are head coaches. 

One Black head coach in a league whose rosters are roughly 75% Black?

This after Brian Flores was fired by the Miami Dolphins after a winning season, and David Culley was fired by the Houston Texans after he was given a roster that would struggle to defeat Alabama. 

At the same time the league was spreading good will, only five Black men fill general manager positions, and just one serves as a team president. 

The NFL has implemented one measure after another in hopes that interview rules would help put talented people of color on the radars of owners and top executives. The league has a handful of minority fellowship programs as well. 

But any person of color working in the NFL’s coaching or talent evaluator ranks will insist that from their first-hand experiences, NFL owners — the only individuals with ultimate hiring power — still don’t truly view people of color as viable options for prime leadership positions. 

The owners can sign off on a bolstered Rooney Rule. They can pat Black assistant coaches and front office members on the back and praise their contributions. But when it comes down to it, regardless of how many wins and admirable displays of commitment these men offer, they are, in the minds of most NFL owners, not head-coach material. 

That’s why such strong double standards remain when it comes to hiring criteria, qualifications and the amount of patience people of color in leadership positions receive compared to their white counterparts. 

And before the opponents for change start crowing about “how about just hire based on merit,” or “you want higher Black coach percentages than the percentage of minorities in our society” (yes, those are real responses any time this topic is discussed), miss me with that. 

Merit is rarely considered as it should be. Not for coaches of color.

Otherwise, a 27-year coaching veteran like Bobby Turner — the architect of the rushing attack for Mike Shanahan’s Super Bowl-winning teams in Denver and the ground game of the Super Bowl runner-up Falcons and 49ers — would have long since been elevated beyond running backs coach (the position he held in Denver, Washington, Atlanta and now San Francisco). Instead, he would have become an offensive coordinator and then head coach. 

And he’s just one of hundreds of examples of gifted Black men unfairly pigeonholed in position-coach gigs. 

That double standard is why a son of a coach or executive with zero qualifications can get an entry-level job more easily than former players and more quickly climb the ranks than their senior colleagues of color. 

It’s why a white offensive coordinator with limited experience tied to a hot-shot coach can land a job running his own team (Zac Taylor got the Bengals head coaching job after one season as Sean McVay’s QB coach), while someone like Pep Hamilton — a longtime quarterback whisperer with a successful track record — again is finding it hard to land head-coaching interviews and will likely have to settle for a position coach or coordinator gig. Again. 

The “it’s not what you know, but who you know” mantra applies to one shade of skin.

So until NFL owners and team presidents leave no stone unturned and seriously consider how some of these men of color — who have been coaching longer than guys like underperforming Kliff Kingsbury have been alive — could shape and lead their franchises, spare me the showy MLK tributes. 

Until coaches like Steve Wilks, Hue Jackson, Terry Robiskie, Raheem Morris and David Culley are viewed as more than place-holders until more desirable salary cap situations and sexier candidates come along, let’s not bother with stickers and memes. 

Until NFL owners understand and welcome diversity in earnest, and realize that coaching staffs and front offices that boast leadership of varying backgrounds can make for a stronger product, the rejections, double standards and tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will remain nothing more than shams. 

So why bother?