Disconnect Between Player Success and Coach/Manager Success Shows Reason for Racial Incongruity

It has recently come to the attention of ESPN senior writer Mike Sando that the NFL’s self-imposed effort to hire more minority head coaches has failed to achieve its goal. The requirement behind the effort, named “The Rooney Rule,” was imposed by the league in 2003 and required that NFL teams had to at least interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation positions. However, NFL teams are not required to hire the minorities they interview. Sando discovered that the number of first time minority head coach hires is no higher than it was prior to the rule’s inception.

The issue was of such importance that the revelations discussed in the article actually led off the popular ESPN debate show Pardon the Interruption (PTI). On this day, the show was co-hosted by Tony Kornheiser and Pablo Torre (who was filling in for the usual co-host Mike Wilbon). Sando’s article was cited at the beginning of the segment as an introduction of the topic about to be discussed. The following is the bulk of what transpired between the two talking heads.

Torre: When we talk about race and diversity in this country, whether it is college admissions or head coaching jobs we like to talk about equality of opportunity, access to those jobs, not equality of outcome. We don’t want to falsely engineer diversity. But to me there’s a certain point where the outcome is so stark that clearly there is not equality of opportunity. Clearly it is the case where there are just not enough qualified candidates for these jobs, or head coaches of African American descent are not seen as having the mental acuity to do these jobs much as the stigma has applied to quarterbacking and may also apply to coordinators and head coaches as well.

 

Kornheiser: I think we are struck by the incongruity that the league is two thirds black and head coaches are nowhere near that percentage. There are five black head coaches at the moment and seven general managers.

 

Torre making the claim that he favors equality of opportunity and not outcome is a fair enough point on its surface. But he then makes it clear that he refuses to accept the outcome if it crosses some under-diversified threshold that he is uncomfortable with. He then floats the possibility that there may not be “enough” qualified black candidates for these jobs. However, the word “enough” is entirely subjective as some sort of proof of success for blacks in certain coaching and front office positions.

Kornheiser’s claim of “incongruity” stemming from a 2/3 black league only having five black head coaches is rather flawed when one looks at the track record of former successful professional athletes in these kinds of leadership positions. For example, Art Shell made eight Pro Bowls over a decade and a half career and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But he was fired after his final coaching stint with the Oakland Raiders as a result of going 2-14 that season. Matt Millen won four Super Bowls and made two All-Pro teams throughout a 12 year career as a linebacker. Millen’s tenure as the General Manager of the Detroit Lions was an emphatic failure as his team was a whopping 50 games under .500 during his seven year run and had a losing record in each of those seasons.

Looking at other sports, we can see that this disconnect is not specific to the NFL. Isiah Thomas won two NBA Championships in a spectacular Hall of Fame career. However, Thomas performed so badly as the President of Basketball operations for the New York Knicks that just a few short years after his hiring the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second worst record. He was then named the team’s head coach for the two following seasons in which they went on to miss the playoffs both years.

Being the greatest player in the history of your sport is likewise no guarantee of coaching or front office success. Michael Jordan has been either a minority or majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets for ten years while that team has only made the playoffs three times. Charlotte was so bad in the strike shortened 2011-2012 season that they set the record for lowest winning percentage in NBA history. Wayne Gretzky, who was to hockey what Jordan was to basketball, failed to make the playoffs or even post a .500 record during his four year run as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

This is not to say that being successful as an athlete means success as a coach or front office holder is unobtainable. LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers is considered one of the best in the game and was also able to play fourteen years in the NBA while making an All Star team. Ozzie Newsome made three Pro Bowls, four All Pro teams and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1999. After retirement he developed himself into one of the best general managers in football with the Baltimore Ravens.

So in response to Kornheiser’s claim of racial incongruity when it comes to the percentage of blacks in the NFL and head coaching/front office positions, it can also be said that there is incongruity in success as an athlete and success as a coach, GM or owner. This disconnect persists regardless of race. Jordan and Thomas are both black whereas Gretzky and Millen are both white. All of them struggled significantly in their post-athlete days in other positions within their respective sports. However, both Rivers and Newsome are black and have achieved significant success in other leadership positions in the game which brought them success as a player. Considering that head coaching, general managing and ownership success is clearly a mixed bag when it comes to the former athletes who attempt those ventures, it is hard to see why the racial composition in one realm would reflect the other. Since skills to excel professionally as a player obviously do not always carry over to the nonathletic positions within the sport, let’s not pretend that those who succeed in one of those areas are going to look like those who succeed in an unrelated area. To assume a similar racial makeup would result is to ignore many recent examples which prove otherwise.