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There has been a renewed panic this year over the supposed lack of black head coaches in the NFL. To be precise, this panic is renewed every year around this time, when the demographic make up of new coaching hires inevitably fall short of the media’s arbitrary expectations.
USA Today tells us that the NFL is “failing coaching candidates of color.” A column on Yahoo Sports laments that “black coaching hires” remain at a “dismal level.” We are not told precisely what the Black Coaching Level is supposed to be. The Washington Post reports that black coaches are suffering from a “denial of opportunity.” Professional Yeller Stephen A. Smith went into another of his patented spittle-flecked tantrums yesterday, screaming that the NFL has a serious “problem” and it’s “B.S.” and “black men are not being treated fairly” and so on and so forth.
What seems to have prompted this latest round of racial bean-counting is that, so far, none of the NFL’s four head coaching vacancies have been filled by a person of color. Except that’s not exactly true. Washington hired Ron Rivera, a man of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent. We’ll have to check with USA Today to find out if he counts as a person of color or not. While two of the other openings have, yes, God forgive us all, been filled by white men, the fourth has yet to be filled by anyone. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is black, may well win that job. It’s just that he can’t win it yet because his team is still in the playoffs (a situation that will surely be remedied by the Ravens in the championship game next week). The catch is that the last coaching slot is on the Cleveland Browns. If you really care about the fate of black coaches in the NFL, you’d never root for one to be hired by the Browns.
Currently, there are three — perhaps soon to be four — black head coaches in the league. This puts black representation on the sideline at about the same level as black representation in the population at large. The racial bean-counters say that’s not good enough. According to them, the percentage of black head coaches should more closely reflect the percentage of black players. Yes, about that.
Black men account for nearly 70 percent of the players in the NFL. White men are vastly underrepresented, and, in certain positions, aren’t represented at all. For example, there are no white cornerbacks in the league. None. Not one. Jason Sehorn, the Last White Corner, retired some 15 years ago. The point here is obvious, and often made, but worth reiterating. If the comparative lack of black coaches is a symptom of racism, why isn’t the comparative lack of white players, and the total lack of white cornerbacks, also a symptom of racism? Stephen A. Smith worries that the black men paid millions to play a game are being treated unfairly. Well, what about all of the white men who would like to be paid millions to play the game but aren’t put on a roster at all? Personally, I would love a $45 million contract to play wide receiver in the NFL. The fact that I have the quickness and athleticism of a horseshoe crab is beside the point. All we’re looking at is race, right?
The racial bean-counters always wave this point off. “Oh, that’s different,” they assure us. How so? However you explain the dearth of white NFL players, why can’t a similar sort of explanation apply to the dearth of black coaches?
Keep in mind, there isn’t necessarily any connection between being a great player and being a great coach, any more than there’s necessarily a connection between being a great chemist and being a great chemistry teacher. Bill Belichick played lacrosse. Andy Reid was an offensive tackle for a community college team. John Harbaugh never played professionally either. These are some of the best coaches in the game today. Indeed, for whatever reason, the really great players often make bad coaches (see: Singletary, Mike). So, maybe more white people end up coaching precisely because they can’t play. As the saying goes, those who can’t do, teach. Perhaps fewer black men coach because they can play, and would rather do that.
My explanation fits the facts on the ground better than the racism theory. If the NFL is prejudiced against black men, it’s hard to explain why that prejudice wouldn’t extend more to the players. It’s also hard to explain how Marvin Lewis, a black man, kept his job as head coach of the Bengals for 15 years despite never winning a playoff game. With due respect to the impressive mediocrity of Jason Garrett and Jeff Fisher, I can’t think of a white head coach in recent memory who was retained for that long despite a total lack of post-season success. Hue Jackson, also a black coach, was kept on board with the Bengals for two years even though he only managed to win three games in that span. Mike Tomlin keeps his job as head coach of the Steelers even as his squad has failed to get past the divisional round of the playoffs in eight of the past nine years. Here is another black coach who isn’t treated the way you’d expect if there was a racist conspiracy against black coaches.
The NFL-is-racist theory predicts that black coaches, if they’re ever hired in the first place, would be held to a much tougher standard and kicked to the curb for the slightest reason. But that is not what we observe actually happening. Marty Schottenheimer was shown the door after leading his team to a 14-2 record in 2006. Because he’s white, everyone chalked it up to a bad playoff record and a strained relationship with the owner. If he were black, everyone would consider it evidence of systemic racism. As usual, the racism explanation is unfalsifiable. Whatever happens is automatically evidence in its favor, though the exact same kind of evidence could never be used to prove racism in the other direction.
If the merchants of identity politics want to be taken seriously, they should probably stop looking for racist conspiracies in professional sports. In fact, they should probably stop looking for racist conspiracies altogether. I’m not saying those kinds of conspiracies don’t exist, or have never existed, but you’ll know one when you see it. And you won’t see it in the modern NFL.