Sports are Racist!

Joseph Beaudet

America’s four major sports have long been subject to racism among coaching staffs. Whether the topic of conversation regards the NFL, MLB, NBA, or even NHL, coaches of color seldom get an equal opportunity to prospective white coaches. While this racism isn’t always visible to the naked eye, so to speak, after little research, it’s easier to see than puddles on a rainy day. Frankly, American sports leagues remain some of the most diverse in the world, and something must change. By implementing new structures that allow for more people of color to gain coaching jobs across America’s four major sports leagues, the racial demographics of the athletes will match those of the coaching staff ultimately breaking down long-held stereotypes about people of color in coaching positions.

Throughout the history of sports, a lack of diversity remains perpetually. A staggering 2 MinorityNFL_FINAL02out of 39 head coach hires from 1997 to 2001 happened to identify as men of color (Sando). Granted, this is the pre-Rooney Rule era, the point stands that these numbers strike anyone as absolutely staggering, in arguably the country’s most diverse league, cause for questioning remained present. While NFL head coaching jobs remained a majority white club, the MLB took massive steps in its adoption of the Selig Rule, requiring minority candidates to get considered for managerial positions (Rymer). Getting people of color in managerial positions throughout the league was always the primary goal for the rule. However, holes left in the rule allowed for easy exploitation. Easy to the point that in 2016, ESPN MLB commentators Doug Glanville and Alex Cora debated the rule’s legitimacy. Following said debate, both men published public letters, in his, Alex Cora says, “Ozzie Guillen and my brother, Joey, recently spoke about the topic and expressed that they don’t feel great about the process, either, especially the past two years… only the Nationals and the Dodgers have hired minority managers,” which is cause enough for concern. There’s cause for speculation when three men connected to baseball in some fashion state publicly they have an issue with the way the rule functions. The Selig Rule’s construction left loopholes easier to exploit than spreading warm butter on toast.

Those loopholes remain noticeably exploitable today. While going widely unnoticed to the naked eye, with about two minutes of Google searching, it’s not hard to find exploitations in the last 2 years. In May 2015, the Miami Marlins appointed GM Dan Jennings to their field manager job instead (Burgos). In an explicitly obvious move to avoid having to abide by the Selig Rule, the Marlins were successful in exploiting the loophole that allows teams to hire from within without interviewing minority candidates, or other candidates in general. Similarly, the Brewers did the same with Craig Counsell (Burgos). Granted, Counsell worked as a special assistant to GM Doug Melvin, but an internal hire is an internal hire, and remained a plan to avoid the Selig Rule. Counsell signed a three-year contract and Dan Jennings tenure with the Marlins didn’t last long, as the organization fired Jennings from both his general manager and interim manager duties at the end of the 2015 season. While the commissioner of the MLB Rob Manfred stated in an interview, “‘We have had a year where our numbers are down, in terms of our diversity in some key positions, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to come up with additional programs and ways to make sure our numbers look better over the long haul,” (Crasnick). Manfred clearly acknowledges the lack of diversity in all important positions, whether the role be manager, general manager, president, or even the assistant to the assistant general manager. With nothing done to correct the loopholes left by the Selig Rule, there’s cause for concern. You use a spoon for cereal less than teams use and abuse the loopholes. In all seriousness, the MLB set the precedent. Bud Selig did it with the Selig Rule in 1999, and the NFL followed suit with their Rooney Rule. In a perfect world, race would never raise issue in sports and coaching . This is no perfect world. With a hot button topic like race, I get the unwillingness to step out of the comfort zone to some extent. However, with the necessity for precedence ruling the world, it feels as if the MLB must set that precedence with stricter enforcement of the Selig Rule, and cleaning up the loopholes.

Speaking of the NFL and the Rooney Rule, teams make a mockery of this too! Shocking, isn’t it? On January 6, 2018, the Oakland Raiders gave Jon Gruden another shot to be their head coach. On January 11, 2018, the NFL reportedly planned on opening an investigation regarding the Raiders’ compliance of the Rooney Rule (Jones). Finally, on January 19, 2018, the NFL found that the Raiders complied with the NFL’s Rooney Rule (Reid). That’s one crazy two-week span. The NFL did not even slightly punish the team, which is surprising in and of itself because of the way they handle players, but that’s another story for another day. The Raiders technically abided by the rule, this is known. The team interviewed Bobby Johnson and Tee Martin, both black football coaches, Johnson the tight end coach for Oakland and Martin the offensive coordinator for USC (Reid). Raiders owner Al Davis though, bragged about convincing Jon Gruden to take the head coaching job before even firing former head coach Jack Del Rio, and had no interest in even considering anybody else for the job (Reid). Prior to, “the rule being implemented in 2003, the commissioner’s office made it crystal clear to owners that, to comply with the spirit of the rule, they should enter into hiring searches with an open mind,” (Reid). While not technically part of the rule, the commissioner’s office is said to have made the requirement of open mindedness “crystal clear.” Even the organization that is responsible for investigating potential Rooney Rule violations admitted they acted too quickly and released a statement saying, “We believe the facts overwhelmingly point in the other direction. In his enthusiasm to hire Jon Gruden, Raiders’ owner Mark Davis failed to fulfill his obligation under the Rule and should step forward and acknowledge he violated the Rule,’”(Reid). The NFL’s failure to even acknowledge this statement is representative of a far bigger issue. There’s words from team owner Al Davis that incriminate himself, and a statement from the alliance tasked with Rooney Rule investigations, the NFL must take action. Simple as. The lack of action is representative of an institutionalized racism throughout major sports in this country. Coaching especially is affected by this lack of equality and equal chances.The NFL is a very diverse league amongst players, though the Rooney Rule must get stricter enforcement and affect more than just head coaches to get the coaching demographics even slightly close to that of the players.

The NBA is another league with a majority player of color population. The NBA lacks a rule similar to the Rooney or Selig Rules implemented by the NFL and MLB roughly 15 and 20 years ago, respectively. However, coaches of color have been represented pretty well in recent memory, with an average of 11 per year from 2001 to 2014. Heck, in 2012, 15 coaches of color held jobs on opening night (Beck). That number shifted dramatically, with just 7 coaches of color currently. Now, obviously coaches get fired usually for not doing well–not winning. However, time and time again, we see white coaches get those second and third chances. Coaches of color, specifically in the NBA, have never really gotten those. This is shocking only in that the NBA is generally so revolutionary with the way people of color so widely represented in the league. For years, the league had the most coaches of color, by a comfortable margin. Players of color, in recent memory, make up roughly 75 percent of the total players in the NBA. Seems reasonable, but from a coaching standpoint, it begs the question, “Why are there not more coaches of color?” The answer lies in the MLB and NFL. Both leagues experienced improved diversity among head coaches since the implementation of the Selig and Rooney rules, respectively. Frankly, the NBA should follow suit now. After seeing such a drastic drop in 6 years, commissioner Adam Silver must take a step back and realize there’s bigger issues at hand than deciding whether or not to include chess during All Star Weekend. In all seriousness though, there’s no reason to believe a Rooney or Selig-type rule in the NBA wouldn’t work.

The NHL is a much different case than the NBA, MLB, and NFL, in that there remains a lack of players of color. Without many players of color, it’s hard to make the argument that coaching demographics should match that of players. Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL, and sixty years on from his debut with the Boston Bruins, the lack of head coaches of color in the league persists. In an interview, Willie O’Ree said, “‘If you look around right now, there are no black coaches or general managers. But opportunities are there. All you have to do is apply yourself. I’d like to see some black coaches behind the benches. I would like to see more black referees on the ice, too.’” (Fish). Opportunities are undoubtedly there, however, so many coaches of color in the NHL coach goaltenders. Frankly, becoming an NHL head coach is hard enough, going from a goalie coach to head coach, no matter the other steps in between, is nearly unprecedented. It doesn’t help either that so many teams hire former players to serve as bench coaches, which more often than not leads to head coaching. All of this begging the question, “Does the NHL need a Rooney/Selig Rule too?” The answer? Yes, but only to a certain extent. Quite frankly, there’s just not enough people of color entering the world of hockey. The diversifying of NHL coaching will greatly impact the games outreach, because of the world of hockey’s systemic outreach. Often times, hockey is catered to upper-middle class to upper class families, and unfortunately, that generally doesn’t include families of color. The diversification of NHL coaching is a long process, and it starts with the youth of America, Canada, maybe even Bangladesh and getting them interested in hockey.

All four of America’s major sports league are under some sort of criticism for their current lack of diversity amongst coaches. However, none of them show any sort of attempt to help improve that diversity. Outside organizations, like the Fritz Pollard Alliance named after the NFL’s first African-American coach, recognize the lack of diversity. The alliance stated their goal going forward is to strengthen, “the rule and everything around it, the whole equal opportunity effort,” (Maske). When we reach the point that an outside organization is acknowledging the lack of diversity amongst coaches, specifically in the NFL, there’s an even greater underlying issue that needs fixing. In regards to the three other major sports leagues in America, a general lack of acknowledgement for the outrageously poor diversity amongst head coaches in the leagues is present. Rob Manfred and the MLB cite a “‘skill-set bias’” in regards to the lack of diversity among managers in the league (Verducci), also known as a fancy way of saying that the league does not feel people of color hold enough talent to fill managerial roles. Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, and Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, have quite literally done nothing to help improve the diversity amongst head coaches in their respective leagues. Insert the fans, as a fan any of these leagues, you help, in one way or another, pay these men. As a whole, we as fans must bring an end to the endlessly institutionalized racism brought forth by the leagues’ owners and commissioners. The argument is possible that these changes remain far from a one day project. While I do realize this isn’t a one day fix by any stretch of the imagination, my points stand. This project remains a long-term one, the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule in 2002, there’s still diversity issues. The MLB implemented the Selig Rule in 1999, and there’s still diversity issues. There’s no reason to believe this is a short-term project, or even a project that anybody could solve in five or ten years, but the work to fix the issue would help immensely.

Sports have always brought people together, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, a smurf, anything. They’re truly some of the most beautiful things in the world, however, when there’s a club, of sorts, that’s very exclusionary, among head coaches, there’s cause for concern. Something about this club must change, and that’s where the fans come in. We, the fans put money in their pockets, and allows this to continue happening. We must put an end to the institutionalized racism amongst head coaches in America. When that happens, we may finally see Papa Smurf coach the Cleveland Browns and lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. In all seriousness though, we may finally get to see a majority coach of color staff in any of America’s four major leagues.


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