Coaching Diversity Is an Issue in All American Sports, Not Just the NFL

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Coaching Diversity Is an Issue in All American Sports, Not Just the NFL
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Diversity, or the lack thereof, within the NFL coaching ranks remains a hot topic. In 2013, not one minority coach was hired despite eight teams looking for new head coaches to lead their franchises.

In most cases, teams complied with the absolute minimum requirement of the Rooney Rule, interviewing a minority candidate to fill the league-mandated quota before hiring the coach they wanted all along.

The NFL consistently gets high marks for its commitment to diversity, yet this year will have fewer minority coaches than 2012. 

This column takes a look at the NFL when compared with other major American sports. Is there diversity among coaches in any major American sport? The data is rather striking.

 

The Necessity and Hypocrisy of the Rooney Rule

This season, Lovie Smith was fired after missing the playoffs for the Chicago Bears and interviewed for a few vacant positions, but was unable to land another head coaching job.

Smith was a hot commodity as a defensive coordinator, but decided to take a year off, not willing to settle for a lesser position after spending nine years as an NFL head coach. 

Other minority candidates also interviewed for some of the vacancies, though none were hired. 

There really is no right or wrong answer as to why that happened, or why it should matter. There's no hand-wringing at the process or pounding-the-desk anger about the good ol' boy network in the NFL.

Truth be told, it's unfair to cast a blanket over the entire league when each team has the right to hire the best coach, regardless of his ethnic or cultural heritage.

NFL teams, like teams in every single American sport, have the responsibility to their players and fans to find the best coach available, no matter what he looks like.

Still, it's hard to ignore that the "best coach available" in the NFL is almost always a white guy.

I'm aware that our country is made up predominantly of white people, but the NFL, and many other sports leagues, are not.

Again, it's not hand wringing; it's just a fact.

 

Please note that other is in quotes due to the ridiculousness of the term.

What the Mandate Can Create

We know the NFL goes to great lengths to ensure minority candidates are being interviewed for not just head coaching jobs, but front-office jobs as well.

With most new head coaches coming from the coordinator level of assistant coaches, there has been some talk of expanding the Rooney Rule to include coordinator slots.

Creating mandates and quotas certainly helps minority candidates get looks they otherwise may not, but when those coaches aren't getting hired, the system creates a result that looks worse—not one minority hired despite several interviewing for the jobs—than doing nothing at all. 

Some people think there is a strange correlative nature to minority hires. For example, if a team hires a great offensive coordinator who happens to be black, that will open the door for more black coaches to be considered for coordinator positions. The success of one minority coach, some suggest, can lead to greater opportunities for other minority coaches.

Is this true? Would people in the position of power actually look at a coach and say, "Well he's black, and the black guy on that other team is a good coach, so let's hire this guy because his skin color is the same."

Does that happen? And if it does, is that even a good thing?

I'm all for diversity in coaching. I do think, as the data indicates, that there is a disconnect between the number of minorities playing professional sports and the number coaching them. To think, however, that Mike Tomlin's success as a head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers or Jim Caldwell's late-season play-calling ability for the Baltimore Ravens would have any impact on another black coach getting a look is just as degrading as ignoring a black coach in the first place.

The only difference—and it's a huge difference—is that in one case, at least the minority coaches are getting a chance to advance. Still, the idea that one black coach's success can foretell another's is preposterous.

 

MLB: Managing a Global Game

We spend so much time talking about the lack of diversity in the NFL when the lack of diversity in Major League Baseball is ostensibly the same. After the Miami Marlins fired Ozzie Guillen, MLB has just four non-white managers in its ranks. 

While there may be a higher percentage of white players in MLB—and certainly fewer black players in baseball than the NFL—the number of Hispanic and Latino players would lead one to believe that MLB teams would find cultural diversity an asset in a manager.

As the game gets more global, that diversity has yet to fully resonate within the managerial ranks.

 

NBA: Unusually Diverse Coaching Ranks

Clearly, the NBA is at the forefront of cultural diversity with its head coaching positions. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, 13 are led by non-white coaches.

The percentage of black players in the NBA is not even close to the percentage of black coaches, but the overall diversity in the NBA coaching ranks is so much higher than in any other major sport, the entire concept seems of little concern in the NBA community.

It's tangentially interesting to note that 20 of the 30 current NBA head coaches played in the league, some with Hall of Fame caliber careers. If the number of former players who become coaches stays consistent over the next few years, more minority coaches will get opportunities to become head coaches in the NBA. 

 

Hockey: The White Guy Sport

It's a waste of time to even address the issue of racial diversity in hockey with very few black players lacing up skates in the history of the NHL.

That said, it is interesting to look at the nationalities of NHL coaches. With so many European players making up NHL rosters, the league's coaches are all North American, as 23 of the 30 coaches come from Canada and the remaining seven come from the United States.

 

MLS: The World's Game, with an American Spin

For its 19 teams, MLS has just two head coaches who would be considered non-white. What's more interesting, though, is how American the coaches are.

The sport is the most popular game in the world, and while MLS is structured to benefit the American players, the league has become more diverse over the last decade. Still, of the 19 head coaches, 12 can be identified as "American."

As with any league, numbers change from year to year, as MLS lost at least two foreign coaches in 2012 who were both replaced by Americans.

It has often been suggested that American coaches thrive in MLS because they better understand the system of American sports and the structure of the league, with foreign coaches struggling to acclimate to the way our country develops players to matriculate to the professional ranks. 

Whether that's an indictment of the foreign coaches' inability to assimilate or the country's outlier system within the world of soccer (even calling it soccer makes it an outlier), the disconnect remains an issue in MLS, especially with a national team coach who is neither American nor an MLS advocate.

 

Striking Lack of Diversity at the College Level

College sports have a different structure from pro sports, but racial lines for head coaching positions are just as, if not more, important to study when looking for a true barometer of minority head coaches in this country.

Just because the players don't get paid doesn't mean the sports aren't billion-dollar businesses with million-dollar head coaching positions. Nobody, outside of the players, is crying poor in big-time college football and basketball. 

Looking at college football first, there are 125 FBS programs and 109 of them have white head coaches. To put it another way: There are just 16 non-white head coaches in the top division of college football.

The percentage of white to non-white head coaches is actually the same as the percentage in the NFL, but something about the raw numbers makes the split even more striking.

The NFL can cry small sample size—there are only 32 jobs—but that can't be said for the world of major college football. 

As the chart indicates, the diversity is even lower when looking at the BCS conferences, as just seven of the 69 schools that make up the BCS conferences employ black head coaches. 

College basketball is markedly more diverse than college football, with 98 of the 347 Division I head coaches being non-white. Still, with 71.8 percent of all Division I coaches being white, the college ranks are nowhere near as diverse as the NBA.

Interestingly, when looking at the 2012-13 "power" conferences in college basketball—ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10—the numbers are even more skewed, with 76 percent of those coaches being white.

 

Opportunity for Change?

Unlike the professional ranks—where the players habitually make more money than the coaches and, in many cases, hold more power within an organization—the coach is king in the amateur sports world.

Nonetheless, there is one situation where the athletes have all the power, and can create a culture of change: recruiting.

During the college recruitment process, hundreds of college coaching staffs will chase their tails for months to do what they can to land a coveted prospect.

Once a player signs, he becomes an indentured servant. Until he faxes in his letter of intent and enrolls in a particular school, though, he holds all the power. 

With that, a player's parents hold a lot of power too, as many teenage kids look to their families for advice on where to go to school. Those families have the most power to change the culture of college sports, which would, in turn, help change the culture of professional sports as well.

If more top prospects went to play for minority coaches, more teams would hire minority coaches in an effort to corral those recruits.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The fact that many families don't care what color their coach may be is a good thing—it should only matter how good a coach, and person, he is. At the same time, there is clearly a disconnect between the racial diversity of those playing the game and those charged with coaching the game.

As stated earlier, there really is no right or wrong answer if the question is asking what we, as a society, should do about the lack of diversity in coaching.

A generation from now, when today's players retire and more enter the coaching ranks, we will look back on this time in history with amazement that it was ever an issue. Until then, it is interesting to look at the numbers, no matter what we glean from them.

 

Note: Statistics based on Bleacher Report research from multiple sources.

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