After years of criticism about the lack of minorities in top coaching and player personnel positions, the N.F.L.’s 32 owners on Tuesday took steps to increase racial diversity in the league’s leadership ranks but stopped short of adopting the most aggressive measure under consideration, which would have tied hiring to draft slots.
The owners approved a proposal to change the league’s anti-tampering policy by prohibiting teams from denying assistant coaches chances to interview with other clubs for head coaching or coordinator positions, regardless of their contract status. The proposal also broadens the tampering rule to allow lower-level football executives under contract with one team to interview for an assistant general manager’s job with another.
Teams were already prevented from blocking employees from pursuing head coaching or general managers’ jobs. The ability of teams to block other movement by coaches or executives on their staffs is believed to have kept minority job candidates from landing better positions.
The owners declined to make a decision on a more contentious proposal that would have rewarded teams that hire head coaches or general managers of color by giving the clubs improved picks in the draft.
The plan was widely criticized, including by several prominent African-American coaches, after details of the proposal were published on Friday. Some said that teams should not need incentives to hire minority coaches and that the measure’s intent could be distorted by teams that just want to move up in the draft.
“I just have never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing,” Tony Dungy, the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, said in a podcast interview. “And so I think there’s going to be some unintended consequences.”
After the vote on the two measures, which came at a scheduled virtual meeting of the league’s owners, Commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized that the proposal including incentives had been tabled, not rejected. The owners, he said, were supportive of the idea and considering ways to improve it. The measure, he added, could be voted on again later this year.
“We’re not satisfied where we are, we know we should and can do better,” Goodell said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “There’s no single solution to this. It’s a matter of a number of initiatives.”
The measures were the latest attempt by the N.F.L. to address the lack of diversity in its decision-making ranks. Three-quarters of the league’s players are people of color, but the vast majority of top coaches and player personnel executives are white men. The effort to rectify this inequity took on a renewed urgency this off-season when only one nonwhite coach was hired: Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, took charge of the Washington Redskins. In 2019, eight N.F.L. teams filled head coaching vacancies, and the Miami Dolphins were the only club to hire a nonwhite head coach, Brian Flores. There are now just four nonwhite head coaches, down from a high of eight in 2014, and only two general managers of color.
Since 2003, the league has relied on the Rooney Rule, which compels teams to interview at least one candidate of color for its top coaching and personnel jobs. But with the paucity of diverse hires, the owners decided to look at a more forceful approach, rewarding teams for racially diverse hiring practices.
“The facts are, we have a broken system and we’re looking to change where we are going, and it’s been going south, and not a gradual south,” said Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president of football operations.
In the proposal that was tabled, a team that hired a nonwhite head coach would have moved up six spots from its position in the third round of the draft in the year preceding that coach’s second season. A team that hired a nonwhite candidate to fill the general manager’s position would have moved up 10 spots in the third round of the draft before that executive’s second season on the job. A team would have lost its advantage if it fired the new hire after a single season, a provision designed to circumvent a tanking strategy and to discourage firing coaches after one losing season.
“The problem is, it can’t be about incentives. It’s got to be about giving the right coaches the right opportunities,” Sam Acho, a member of the N.F.L. Players Association’s executive committee, told ESPN. “The problem with the N.F.L. is that there’s so much cronyism; it’s all about who you know.”
On Tuesday, owners also adopted a provision obligating clubs to send the league office the job descriptions of their coaches and coordinators in order to prevent teams from changing a person’s job title later as a way to block the individual from seeking work with another franchise.
The league also strengthened the Rooney Rule, which did not require a vote to amend. Teams now must interview at least two external minority candidates for head coaching vacancies, up from one; at least one minority candidate for any vacancy among the three coordinator jobs; and at least one external minority candidate for the senior football operations position, which is typically the general manager’s job.
The Rooney Rule will also be applied to more executive positions in front offices. Clubs must interview minorities or female applicants for all senior positions, including club president and executive roles in communications, finance, human resources, the legal department, football operations, sales, marketing, sponsorship, information technology and security.
With just two months until the start of training camps, the owners also heard an update of the league’s approach to reopening team facilities. Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s top medical officer, said that determining a safe way for players to come back would be complex.
Among many hurdles, Sills said the league and the players union must create a system for testing players and staff often and reliably, and decide what to do when, not if, players are found to have the coronavirus.
“Obviously, football and physical distancing are not compatible,” Sills said. “We fully expect we will have positive cases that arise because this disease is endemic in our society.”