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NFL’s Diversity Playbook Is Filled with Fumbles

August 3, 2003

One of the summer’s oddest stories is that the National Football League has fined the Detroit Lions $200,000 for hiring a white coach. This is the work of the NFL “diversity” committee (three committees, actually — two inside the league and one loaded with NFL personnel but pressuring from outside). Teams are still free to hire white coaches. Legally it could hardly be otherwise. But teams are required to interview at least one minority candidate before choosing a coach.

Is this an awful idea? Not if a team is conducting a wide-open search that includes first-time or little-known candidates. But if a famous coach is available and the issue is settled because he wants to come, the diversity rule requires elaborate charades to be played out in public. The team must earnestly contact people it doesn’t want. The minority noncandidates have to play along, pretending that they are being interviewed for an opening that does not really exist.

In the case of the Lions, everyone seems to have behaved with admirable candor, despite the NFL rule. The team indicated that it was interested in a famous white coach, Steve Mariucci. The Lions say they contacted five minority prospects for the job, but all five declined to be interviewed because they knew about Mariucci. One of the five, Detroit offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, said a token interview for the sake of diversity was demeaning.

Stuck with a foolish let’s-pretend diversity policy, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue turned to bluster. He told the Lions that although some of the team’s difficulties were beyond their control, they hadn’t taken “sufficient steps to satisy the commitment” they had made. Did this mean that for the sake of appearances, the Lions should have found somebody, somewhere willing to sit down for a humiliating make-believe interview?

The case for more black coaches is a strong one. Three of the 32 NFL teams have black coaches now. That is close to the black percentage of the general population. But between 60 percent and 70 percent of NFL players are black, and in the normal course of sports, those who play the game are the prime source for the coaches and football executives of tomorrow.

In a reasonable world, the league would admit that it has not done much to nurture black leadership in a largely black sport. It would announce a plan to seek out talent and make sure that teams are fully aware of promising blacks when hiring decisions are made. But voluntary behind-the-scene efforts are not on the agenda now.

The league is responding (quite poorly) to Jesse Jackson-type tactics mounted by two aggressive attorneys, Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran. The attorneys issued a blistering report last fall endorsing the conclusion that the league is suffering from “submerged racism” and threatened to sue. The prospect of long and expensive litigation, accompanied by a steady drumbeat of “racism” charges, startled the league. The owner of the Lions, William Clay Ford Jr., began talking about how he was once named the NAACP’s man of the year, a sure sign of panic.

Also startling for the league was the Mehri-Cochran demand that teams lose first-round draft choices for failures on the diversity frontier. The $200,000 fine levied against the Lions, and the $500,000 maximum for similar offenses, are chump change to owners. Draft choices, however, are another matter.

So the league buckled with blinding speed, averting the suit and the draft-choice issue (at least for now). The mandatory interviews with black job candidates got most of the publicity, but those three committees will have a lot more to say. The settlement with Mehri and Cochran, if that is the right word, sets up monitoring programs and diversity structures that may hobble owners and management for years to come.

That was the pattern in the racial settlement at Texaco, arranged in part by Mehri. Anti-preference leaders Ward Connerly and Edward Blum called the bias claims against Texaco “specious.” But rather than face a boycott and a tide of bad publicity, the company settled for $176 million and installed many questionable diversity programs, including tying executive compensation to cooperativeness on diversity plans.

Fast Company magazine reported that Mehri “is determined to reshape the companies that he sues” and that his settlements “often include substantial changes” beyond what a judge might impose. Does the NFL understand it is about to be reshaped?

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