Towards a Level Playing Field: The Hiring and Firing of Minority GMs

African-American NFL coaches and general managers have had a tough off-season.. Head coaches Todd Bowles, Hue Jackson, Vance Joseph, Marvin Lewis, and Steve Wilks were all fired in the past calendar year, and only one black coach, Brian Flores, was tapped to fill any of the eight total openings. The NFL Network’s Jim Trotter pointed out perhaps an equally troubling trend on the personnel side: After the retirement of the Baltimore RavensOzzie Newsome and the ouster of the Oakland RaidersReggie McKenzie, there stands only one black general manager, Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins (perhaps coincidentally, the team that hired Flores).

Critics of the league will point to the fact that the league is 70% African-American and suggest this under-representation of people of color is a problem. Defenders of the status quo may respond that, with millions at stake, owners have every incentive to create a meritocracy and not to discriminate based on race. In an effort to understand better what trends might exist throughout NFL scouting departments, I researched front office personnel with an eye to why so few African-Americans are tapped to be general managers, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Where General Managers Come From

The focus of my research is on personnel departments and scouting staffs. The reason for that is obvious. Of the 32 men who have or are believed to have final personnel control (It’s not always obvious.), 19—more than half—come from scouting or personnel. In addition, the remaining 13 include unconventional paths unavailable to most candidates, such as owning the team (Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys and Mike Brown, Cincinnati Bengals) or being hired from outside the normal professional channels with little-to-no front office experience (John Elway, Denver Broncos, and John Lynch, San Francisco 49ers).

Not only is rising from the scouting ranks the most common path, it’s the path that eight of 10 past African-American general manager hires have taken. Only Sashi Brown and Martin Mayhew traveled another route; both have law degrees and came up the administration side, working on contracts and other legal concerns. The lack of minority representation in alternate routes is also an issue worth studying. But because it’s by far the most common path, the remainder of this article will focus on the composition of scouting and personnel staffs. I begin with the following questions: Does the same proportion of minority representation exist in roles below general manager? Are African-American candidates being passed over for promotion as they move up the ladder? Are they struggling to get entry-level jobs in the first place? In short, I seek to identify at what point African-Americans hit stumbling blocks to advancement to the top personnel spots with NFL teams.

The Personnel Department

Most personnel departments are arranged roughly as follows:

Four our purposes, “General Manager” is the top of organization; sometimes he is also the owner or the head coach, or sometimes he has a title like “Executive Vice President of Football Operations.” The key is not the title, but the control: Who ultimately decides who is on the 53-man roster?

The GM, particularly if he has another executive title, might be responsible for the management of other groups: administration (contracts, legal, and salary cap), operations, analytics, information technology / video, and more. As noted above, those are out of scope for this exercise. Generally the top-level personnel man, reporting to the GM, is the “Director of Player Personnel,” who might be a Vice President in some organizations. In an organization where the GM does not have a personnel background—for instance, New England with Bill Belichick as head coach / de facto GM—the Director of Player Personnel is the top personnel man, overseeing all scouting. In an organization with a personnel-based GM, the Director of Player Personnel is his right-hand man.  

The GM may also rely on “scouting consultants,” who are veteran personnel folks, often former general managers or directors, who now serve in more of an advisory role. One prominent example is 91-year old Bud Grant, who played in the NFL, CFL, and NBA, then coached the Minnesota Vikings for the better part of two decades. His responsibilities and influence, as with many of the “scouting consultants,” are unclear.

Most of the scouting / personnel department divides into two groups: college scouting and pro scouting. College scouts are what most people think of when they think of scouts: driving around the country, beating the bushes for amateurs who will become the next generation of NFL greats. Generally teams have five or six area scouts who cover a region (such as the southeast), and national scouts or “crosscheckers” who help zero in on the final list of the team’s draft targets. Organizations that are a member of one of the two major scouting combines, NFS or BLESTO, generally have an inexperienced scout who helps compile much of the boilerplate information those organizations generate and share with member clubs. Some organizations have a “regional scout” designation, an intermediate position between area and national scout. Note also that some teams do not list titles for scouts, and it is difficult to discern their roles from the outside.

Pro scouts have an equally important job that is less understood and certainly less heralded. They are responsible for maintaining reports on all players who are no longer draft-eligible: players on other NFL rosters, practice squads, “street free agents” without a team, and players in other leagues such as the Canadian Football League. When a team’s swing tackle goes down and they need a replacement, they use the work of pro scouts to help identify a fit. During the season, pro scouts frequently find themselves on the road to scout upcoming opponents, searching for trends and weaknesses. Both pro and college scouting departments also typically have scouting assistants or interns, entry-level trainees who shoulder some of the tedious day-to-day work.

The sheer number of people involved in the process complicates the ability of outsiders to analyze a front office’s decisions. Scouts, national crosscheckers, the directors, the coaching staff (which gets involved in the offseason process after the season ends), scouting consultants, and the GM himself can have fingerprints on the decision to draft or sign any particular player. Some owners will even weigh in at times. From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to discern who might have been involved in any one decision or series of decisions. Maybe the scouting staff loved a player, or maybe they hated him and the GM overruled his scouts, possibly with a consultant bending his ear. This also makes it a challenge for teams to identify quality GM candidates in other organizations, as they can’t ascribe particular decisions to potential candidates on other teams. As a result, former NFL scout Dan Hatman says, “ownership groups and the consultants or search firms they hire seem to keep the candidate pool ‘in the family.’” That kind of closed loop can restrict the opportunities of people traditionally considered outsiders, such as underrepresented minorities.

Methodology Note

To research this project I combed the 2018 NFL Media Guides of all 32 teams. That means the data is slightly out of date—as Trotter noted, two of three minority GMs are no longer in their roles. Determination of race was visual, so it’s possible I mistakenly identified someone. Where ambiguous, I looked for additional sources, or left blank if I could not determine.

The Big Exception

Across NFL personnel departments, African Americans make up about 28% of the population, with another 4% being other minority or under-represented groups (such as women). Remarkably, this ratio holds pretty consistently up and down the chain, with virtually every role falling within plus or minus 10% of that 28% figure:

With one big exception, that is. As Trotter noted, we have a dearth of black general managers, with representation that has dropped even lower since this data was compiled. However, the pipeline does not appear to discriminate up until that point—African-Americans are represented at 28% at the Director level, nearly identical to the overall mark. Why doesn’t that translate to the highest level?

Part of this is a down cycle in a general upward trend. There were no black general managers prior to Ozzie Newsome earning the title in 2002 and there only have been 10 minority hires ever. But as recently as 2015 there were seven African-American GMs, a ratio more in line with what we see at other levels of the personnel department. Still, even that high-water mark of 22% is lower than the overall 28% figure, and most years it has been far lower.

Anecdotally, African-American general managers seem to have a shorter leash than their white counterparts. Jerry Reese architected two Super Bowl teams with the New York Giants, but he was fired after a 3-13 season in 2017. Two black GMs were the victims of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s legendary impatience: Ray Farmer was fired after only two seasons, while Sashi Brown didn’t even last two while embarking on a long-term rebuild. Reggie McKenzie inherited one of the worst situations in NFL history in 2012 and won Executive of the Year for 2016 after Oakland’s 12-4 campaign, but he was fired less than two years later. Other GMs, such as Martin Mayhew and Rod Graves, have had longer leashes with little success. And while Dave Gettleman (Giants) and John Dorsey (Browns) were hired again less than a year after being fired, we have yet to see a minority GM get a second chance to run a team.

One working theory I had in this piece was that more African-Americans, often ex-players, were funneled into pro scouting and that this was a less appealing path for further promotion compared to the college side. This theory is not supported by the above chart. The composition of College Scouting Directors is more white than the Pro Scouting Directors. Pro Scouting is not a dead end job, however. Of the 19 general managers who came up the personnel side, 10 spent significant time or had a major role on Pro Scouting. Even if more African-Americans are being funneled to the Pro Scouting side, the data doesn’t suggest that this impedes further progress.

Is the Rooney Rule Working?

The Rooney Rule, which mandates teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manager openings, is supposed to ensure all candidates are given a fair shake. While some teams interview and seriously consider multiple candidates, others skirt the rule’s intent by zeroing in on one hire while giving short shrift to other options. The Browns fired Sashi Brown and hired Dorsey the same day, without a public interview process. It took the Raiders most of a year to formally fire McKenzie, but he was effectively demoted when they hired Jon Gruden to a massive 10-year contract and gave him full personnel control. Ozzie Newsome’s planned succession handed the reins to longtime right-hand man Eric DeCosta without seriously considering alternatives.

In each case, the NFL ruled the team in question did not violate the Rooney Rule, but that doesn’t mean African-American candidates were given much chance to compete. The notion of competition is at the heart of the Rooney Rule: given equal consideration to white alternatives, the rule reasons, many black candidates will demonstrate equal or greater qualifications. That only holds up in a fair competition, and too many recent hiring processes appear to be handicapped in favor of the presumptive hire, in each case white.

It’s worth noting similar haphazard hiring process have benefitted African-American candidates in some circumstances. Farmer was hired without ever formally interviewing. Brown was promoted to full personnel control with a plan to hire a GM underneath him, a plan that never materialized. Chris Grier has technically been Miami’s general manager since 2016, but didn’t have full personnel control until this offseason when his boss, Mike Tannenbaum, was re-assigned. Often, teams do not appear to hire general managers through an exhaustive process; they tend to identify a guy quickly and hire him. In individual instances that has benefited black candidates, but it has tended to benefit white candidates more often.

The relentlessness of the NFL calendar is a factor driving these accelerated hiring timetables. Teams that fire their coaches and GMs typically do so at the end of the season. That’s a reasonable time for a coach, as the team has months before any organized football activities. However, it dumps new GM hires right into the thick of the team-building cycle. The college all-star games, free agency, the combine, and the draft are just around the corner. The GM has little opportunity to put his stamp on his first offseason, and the longer the team takes with the hiring process, the less time the new hire has. It’s little wonder teams often lock on to one candidate as early as possible.

And if teams are zeroing in on one choice, familiarity is vital. History suggests this is especially for minority candidates. While 14 of the 32 head personnel decision-makers in 2018 were hired from outside the organization, only three of the 10 African-American GMs in history have been. All had pre-existing ties that helped them get the job: Rod Graves had worked with Cardinals head coach Vince Tobin in Chicago, Rick Smith had worked with Texans head coach Gary Kubiak in Denver, and Reggie McKenzie had worked for Ron Wolf in Green Bay prior to getting the Raiders job. Wolf was not formally part of the Oakland organization but consulted in the GM search. Building relationships and familiarity with key decision-makers is vital for anyone in any profession. Hiring decisions are ultimately made by a fairly small circle of owners and team presidents, and it can be challenging for “outsiders” to penetrate that limited sphere. To increase the number of minority hires, the league must increase the number of networking opportunities between minority candidates and these key decision-makers.

No position in the organization works as closely with ownership as the general manager, and owners seem to value comfort and familiarity. If the owners, who are all white, tend to hire who they are familiar with and comfortable with without a diligent process that gives careful consideration to multiple candidates, they will naturally gravitate towards hiring white candidates, even without any conscious prejudice. Shaun Powell wrote more than decade back that “the lack of black head coaches and GMs has less to do with racism and more to do with indifference.” Not trying to be racist is not enough to avoid unfairness; hiring decision-makers must work to understand subconscious bias and take steps to ensure a truly level playing field.

Representation, Nepotism, and Privilege

The “right” amount of diversity in personnel departments is a subject for debate. While African-Americans make up 14% of the US population as a whole, they comprise approximately 70% of the NFL. Not every scouting department hire plays in the NFL, but in 2018, black student-athletes comprised 39% of NCAA football players at all levels, with other non-white groups making up another 14%. That percentage gets higher at the more competitive levels—Division I is 48% black and only 37% white. If we expect personnel department hires will have mostly played college football at some level, the 28% figure we observe is at least 10% lower than we would expect.

Nepotism abounds in NFL hiring. At every level of organizations, in personnel and in coaching, you will see familiar last names—sons, grandsons, brothers, in-laws, and nephews of former coaches and executives, and even owners. The Steelers, for instance, employ both Dan Rooney Jr. (son of Sr., the team’s late President and owner, and the man for whom the Rooney Rule is named) and Dan Colbert, son of GM Kevin. Former race car driver A.J. Foyt IV, grandson of the Hall of Fame Driver of the same name, works as a scouting assistant for the Indianapolis Colts—a hire that seems curious, until you realize that he is married to Casey Irsay, daughter of Colts owner Jim.

There are only so many jobs in football, and spots going to legacy candidates mean fewer spots going to open competition. Even aside from cases of outright nepotism, referrals can also restrict the pipeline to NFL gigs. The Patriots hired Josh McDaniels, Nick Caserio, and Jerry Schuplinski to various jobs in their coaching and personnel departments; the trio were teammates at John Carroll University. NFL coaches and front offices have largely been white historically. Nepotism and referral is going to generally perpetuate that trend, giving job opportunities to friends and relatives who are also going to be disproportionately white. Nepotism isn’t discriminatory in-and-of-itself, but jobs going to white relatives and friends are jobs not going to deserving minority candidates.

But while nepotism is unfair, it can have advantages, too. Football is an unusual job, with unusual hours and and an unusual level of commitment. People who grow up around the game are going to understand that more than most. Most hires start with entry-level jobs where the requirements are modest, and then work their way up based (largely) on merit. There’s a logic in hiring people who know people and are going to understand what the job entails. As one example, the most recent Super Bowl featured two legacy hires as head coaches: Bill Belichick is the son of former NFL player and longtime Navy assistant Steve Belichick, while Sean McVay’s grandfather John coached college and served in the 49ers personnel department for years, including as GM. Certainly Belichick and McVay have proven their worth many times over, but they got their feet in the door largely on the basis of their names.

Belichick is one of a handful of coaches with full personnel control, a power that has never been bestowed on an African-American head coach. The Patriots granted Belichick this power even after he was fired from a previous head coaching gig, with the Cleveland Browns. In fact, all the head coaches with full or partial control—Belichick, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, and Oakland’s Jon Gruden—have been previously fired. In light of the reality that we’ve never seen a black general manager rehired, it’s worth asking what the career path of Bill Belichick would have looked like if he were African-American.

Also worth noting: entry-level NFL jobs pay little, while demanding the kind of hours that preclude holding a second job. The Ravens proudly talk of their “20-20 Club” alums, scouts hired right out of school for $20,000 a year. Many scouts and coaches start as graduate assistants at the college level, where pay is even worse, often a stipend of about $1,000 per month (and nothing in the summer). Others start with unpaid internships. Many people who want to work in football aren’t in a situation to take a job that earns so little. Many stories of executives’ early days involve crashing on friends’ coaches or surviving on the largesse of a parent or spouse. That’s not an avenue available to everybody, and tends to benefit those with some kind of privilege. Low entry-level salaries, like other conventions we have seen, does not specifically disadvantage African-American candidates. However, black Americans tend to have dramatically lower net worth than white competition, and many may not be in a financial position to take such a position.

Looking Forward

To sum up: African-Americans are somewhat underrepresented at the lower levels of organizations, but get promoted at similar rates to white candidates until they reach the director level. It is the last step, earning the general manager role, that eludes many minority candidates. There are two issues here: entry-level representation, and top-level representation.

For entry-level candidates, the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship provides opportunities to get a foot in the door, placing minority candidates in offseason camps to get them exposure to the process and help them build connections with teams. This program is explicitly targeted at coaching candidates, not scouts, but starting as a coaching assistant can be a path to the personnel department. The Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship provides opportunities for NFL players to get exposure to scouting jobs. The NFL’s three-day Career Development Symposium lets team send staff for networking and training towards head coach and GM positions; at least one of the team’s two representatives must be from an under-represented minority group.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, an affinity group that works to help increase diversity in front offices, has suggested expanding the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with additional positions, along with a similar expansion to the Nunn-Wooten Fellowship. They also want to extend the duration of the fellowships from just the summer position to season-long. Such expansion would help counteract the nepotism and referrals that disproportionately favor white candidates, giving minority candidates and women greater opportunity to get a foot in the door. Even if such a fellowship doesn’t lead to immediate employment, it can help candidates penetrate the (largely white) informal networks that lead to future referrals and recommendations.

While the Alliance focuses on the NFL, perhaps other advocacy organizations can look at graduate assistant opportunities for minority candidates—both helping them network to land gigs, and helping with financial assistance so they can survive on modest GA salaries. Leveraging organizations such as The Scouting Academy, which provides training and networking opportunities to people seeking scouting positions, also makes sense.

The other end of the organization—the GM position—seems like the trickier nut to crack. The Fritz Pollard Alliance has suggested making the Rooney Rule apply to coordinators and team presidents. It might make sense to expand it to Director-level positions as well. While representation among Directors is not particularly an issue and teams seem likely to circumvent the Rooney Rule with token interviews of minority candidates, just getting the opportunity to sit down with decision-makers in other organizations could be a step to building the familiarity and name recognition that will make owners comfortable with hiring minority GMs later on down the road. Every African-American GM hire has been promoted from within or had pre-existing ties to the hiring organization; the challenge is how to build these ties where they don’t exist. An example of how this can work is with Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. In 2002, McKay was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he interviewed with Atlanta for their GM position when the Bucs made a coaching change. McKay wound up staying in Tampa Bay, but less than two years later signed on with Atlanta. The relationship he forged with Falcons owner Arthur Blank in that initial interview created a comfort level for both sides.

The changes to the Rooney Rule introduced in December can help as well. Teams are now mandated to interview a minority candidate from outside the organization or from the Career Development Advisory Panel’s list. This panel was created in part to help teams identify quality minority candidates for key positions, though they also highlight deserving white candidates. Some of the accelerated hiring processes featured perfunctory hires of internal minority candidates; this change should reduce this kind of tokenism. The league also now requires teams to document their hiring process in the interest of greater transparency, and the top-level decision-maker involved in the process must be present for all interviews. The NFL also encourages but does not require teams to interview multiple minority candidates. Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 found a minority candidate stood very little chance of being hired as the sole minority candidate for a job, but chances increased dramatically, far more than doubling, with “two in the pool.” One minority candidate reinforces the “otherness” of the minority option, and unconscious bias for the norm makes it virtually impossible for that candidate to fairly compete. Two minority candidates changes the status quo, making the minority option less “other,” and creates a more level playing field.

Many people profess to be or aspire to be “colorblind” in their actions. But staying blind to color—if it is even truly achievable—will lead only to the continuation of the same policies which tend to favor white candidates. Nepotism, familiarity, networking—none of these are inherently racist, but without a conscious, i.e., not “colorblind,” attempt to include people of color, they will tend to continue to benefit white candidates. The Rooney Rule has helped by ensuring decision-makers at least consider minority alternatives. But it hasn’t been a magic solution, nor should we imagine the latest changes are the final word. “Diligence is always necessary. The willingness to tinker should always be there with any sort of forward-thinking initiative,” said Professor Jeremi Duru, who wrote Advancing the Ball, a history of the Rooney Rule. Just wanting to be fair isn’t enough; the decision-makers have to work at being fair. Looking at several of the recent hires, it’s hard to argue that the playing field was level. Football prides itself on giving two teams the chance to compete on any given Sunday; it has a ways to go before the fairness of the competition off the field matches the fairness on the gridiron.

Thanks to Professor Duru and to Dan Hatman for their input on this piece, and to James Mastrangelo for his editing and advice.

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