When TMR Magazine looked strictly at the numbers, we finally understood the NFL’s confounding lack of Black head coaches. The only logical answer is racism.
By every statistical measure, Black coaches in the National Football League have outperformed white coaches.
In 1989, when the Oakland Raiders made Art Shell the first Black head coach in the world’s most profitable, most popular but most undercompensated sport (NFL players share a lower percentage of profits than any other major professional sport), the NFL was already majority-Black. Since then, Black coaches have won at higher rates than white coaches. Black coaches are more experienced, more capable and produce better results. They are more likely than white coaches to lead their teams to the playoffs.
However, in the 102-year history of the National Football League, only 20 Black men have been allowed to coach an entire season.
Let us begin there.
While a particular segment of NFL-adjacent whitesplainers have somehow created their own bespoke definition of racism based on what they meant, how many Black friends they have and the Lord’s knowledge of what’s in their heart, the people who make dictionaries define racism as “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” the “behavior that reflects this belief” or “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.” According to the word’s actual meaning, racism does not require intent or animus.
But, when it comes to hiring head coaches, is the NFL racist? Whether it intends to or not, does the NFL engage in the systemic oppression of a racial group for the benefit of another? Does it foster a belief that white coaches are inherently superior to their Black counterparts? Instead of engaging in speculative, opinion-based debate over the white owners’ propensity to put white men at the helm of their franchises, TMR Magazine decided to evaluate America’s most profitable league in sports, based solely on the numbers.
How We Did It
To examine the statistical data, we decided to exclude the years when the NFL was racist and concentrated on the post-1989 era NFL. Because some coaches benefit from their past performance—and rightfully so—we also didn’t count coaches already employed when the Raiders hired Shell. For instance, Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells’ 77 wins and 1990 Super Bowl title with the Giants doesn’t count in our dataset because he was hired in the pre-Shell era. While that might not seem fair, Bill Belichick’s record isn’t saddled with his abysmal .450 winning percentage from his pre-Patriot days as coach of the Cleveland Browns.
We also excluded interim head coaches like Perry Fewell because they were never technically hired. And, instead of plumbing everyone into the category of “people of color,” we only looked at the 20 Black coaches and the 132 white coaches who have led NFL teams since 1989.
Where Did All These White Guys Come From?
Perhaps the most startling part of the racial disparities in head coaching jobs is the sheer ability of NFL owners’ to find white men. In a league that fluctuated between 54 and 72 percent African-American players over the last 33 years, white coaches accounted for 84 percent of the new hires, while Black coaches make up less than 12 percent of the new hires. Thirteen NFL teams—nearly half of the league’s 32 franchises (Bills, Commanders, Cowboys, Falcons, Giants, Jaguars, Panthers, Patriots, Rams, Ravens, Seahawks, Saints and Titans)—have never hired a Black man as head coach.
This might be because, as Deflector’s Kalyn Kahler discovered, 14 percent of the 792 coaches employed by NFL teams in March 2021 were related to current or former NFL coaches. More than a third of the current coaches in the NFL are family members of a former or current coach. Before Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay became the youngest head coach in history, his grandfather was the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, which is led by Kyle Shanahan, whose father Mike was the longtime coach of the Denver Broncos, whose new head coach is Nathaniel Hackett, whose father served as the offensive coordinator for eight NFL teams, including the team led by Sean McVay’s grandfather. See how it works?
It’s not just nepotism, though. Maybe the NFL’s sidelines are so white because 98 percent of the general managers hired since 1989 have been white. Or perhaps it’s because white men don’t even need NFL experience to become a head coach. Eight percent of the white men who led teams over the last decade had never coached at any position in the NFL—something that has never happened for a Black coach. In fact, 9 out of 10 white men who coached in the NFL never played in the league, while most of the NFL’s Black coaches were former players.
Or perhaps it’s because white men make up 84 percent of the offensive and defensive coordinators—typically the second-highest-ranking coach on a team.
“People forget that the NFL is a corporation,” one Black current defensive coordinator told TMR Magazine. “Just because the best workers are Black doesn’t mean they’re gonna be promoted to team leader. It’s just like corporate America; it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
Black Meritocracy, White Mediocrity
Of course, the current counternarrative is that sports are a results-based industry. It is certainly possible that Black coaches just need to perform better. There’s just one thing wrong with that assertion:
Black coaches are better than white coaches.
Overall, Black coaches have won about 7.75 games per year, while white coaches win about 7.71 games every season. Yet, the average tenure for a Black head coach is 4.5 years, more than a full season shorter than the tenure for a white head coach. (5.68 years). On average, a team led by an African-American coach makes the playoffs nearly 40 percent of the time, while franchises led by white coaches reach the postseason a little more than 35 percent of the time. Although two postseason appearances every five years may seem like a slight difference, since the NFL and the AFL merged in 1963, only two white coaches (Marty Schottenheimer and Jimmy Johnson) have ever lost their jobs after making the playoffs twice in the five years before they were fired.
In the history of the NFL, only 17 coaches have been fired with a winning record, five of whom were Black (Shell, Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell and Brian Flores). Smith was fired after a 10-win season, Dungy after three consecutive playoff appearances and Caldwell was the last player to take the Detroit Lions to the playoffs. He did it twice. That’s right—a quarter of the Black men who ever coached in the NFL were fired with winning records. Meanwhile, 97 percent of white coaches who won more than eight games kept their position.
“I wish it was just about winning,” explained one defensive coordinator. “Especially if you coach offense. That’s why I coach defense even though I was drafted on offense. We ranked in the top 10 defenses every year I’ve ever coached. Every year. So I’m straight. But, to keep your job on offense, you gotta be considered ‘smart.’ And if you talk to any Black coach in the league, they’ll tell you ‘smart’ equals ‘white’.”
The Rooney Ruse
The Rooney Rule was supposed to fix this. Named after owner Dan Rooney, in 2003, the NFL began requiring every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one “diverse” candidate. Since the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule, the number of Black coaches has tripled, so it worked, right?
Nope, it didn’t.
On the surface, it may look that way, but it has been harder for Black coaches to get jobs, keep jobs or even work as assistants since the Rooney Rule. Before the Rooney Rule, Black men accounted for 13 percent of new head coaching hires. Since the Rooney Rule, it has fallen to below 12 percent. Because GMs are now more likely to fire unsuccessful coaches, there have been more jobs openings per year since the Rooney Rule took effect. It just seems like it’s working because the average tenure of head coaches has decreased overall.
NFL owners essentially tripled the membership of their exclusive club and doubled the number of Black members. Sure, they have twice as many Black coaches, but the club is even whiter than before.
“When I got my first job, I interviewed with the coaching staff to work as a scout,” explained one of the few Black offensive coordinators who has interviewed for a head coaching job. “When I joined the coaching staff, I interviewed with the offensive coordinator to make sure I understood the offense. But if I want to be a head coach, you have to interview with people who never played in the league and don’t really know anything about football. They’re just looking for someone who they think is smart. Well, what’s smart? Someone who talks like them and acts like them.
“It’s not like they don’t like Black coaches—at least I don’t think they know they do. But if you look at who gets the jobs, it’s white kids who grew up in skyboxes and went on vacations with the same people who are doing the hiring. It’s not that there’s just one good ol’ boy’s club and you gotta know the secret handshake. It’s a network of good ol’ boys who grew up playing golf at all the good ol’ boys club, so [the owners] feel comfortable with another good ol’ boy!”
“When you think about it, it’s the perfect cover story,” another veteran receivers coach told TMR Magazine. “If you tell a bunch of billionaires they don’t have to care (as long as they can just make it look like they care), and then you tell them exactly how to make it look like they care; they’re gonna game the system every time. How do you think they got that billion dollars to buy a team? By gaming the system!”
The Other Side
Technically, Fritz Pollard was the NFL’s first Black head coach. Technically, the NFL was racist when it banned Black players from 1933 until after World War II. So, to balance the claims that the NFL is racist, TMR Magazine spoke to seven different Black NFL team employees on and off the record. Surely one of them could explain why their league isn’t racist.
We’re still looking.
While some were more vocal than others, we simply couldn’t find a single Black NFL coach on any level who didn’t cite racism as the main reason why the NFL’s leadership is so white. In a league composed of a higher percentage of African-American college graduates than in the real world, where—in any given year—1,200 Black men provide $8 billion in revenue, 32 non-Black billionaires have never been able to find more than five qualified Black men to lead their golden-egg laying Black geese squads.
The only way anyone could possibly make the NFL’s bias against Black coaches make sense is if they believed that race was the fundamental determinant of a person’s capacity to lead a team. Or maybe they think whiteness produces inherently superior coaches. It was always this way, and they have never made a good-faith effort to change it, which means, according to the data, the makeup of the candidate pool and the actual results, the National Football League is a system founded on racism and is designed to execute its principles.
There’s a word for that.