David: The NFL’s complicated relationship with race

Loretta David, Columnist

Football is an integral part of American culture. People take pride in their teams, spending exorbitant amounts of money on merchandise, engaging in tense debates about why their team is the best and traveling hundreds of miles to watch their team compete. The sport is marketable, profitable and accessible through cable TV. 

With football having so much influence, it’s important that the National Football League address its issues with race and representation. With national media calling the NFL’s practices into question amid the ongoing discrimination lawsuit from Brian Flores, it’s time to take a deeper look at the league’s history with race. 

The NFL is no stranger to controversy when it comes to race. Colin Kaepernick sparked national debate when he protested police brutality by kneeling during the anthem. Kaepernick’s decision was met with backlash and support from both fans and players. While Kaepernick’s protest certainly provoked conversations about systemic racism in America, it didn’t come without consequence. Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL for over five years and is unlikely to ever hit the field again. 

Kaepernick’s ousting warrants a deeper look into representation in the NFL. When you think of the greatest quarterback of all time, who comes to mind first? Tom Brady? Peyton Manning? Joe Montana? How about the greatest coach of all time? Bill Belichick? Tom Landry? Sure, a show-stopping defense or all-star running back can send a destitute team to the playoffs. However, the two figures usually credited with the success of a team are the quarterback and the coach. And these two positions are predominantly white, despite the fact that the NFL is 58% Black. 

To address its issues with diversity at the coaching level, the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview at least two “diverse” candidates for head coaching positions. All teams have to do is interview, not hire, “diverse” candidates. This is where Brian Flores’ lawsuit comes to play. 

Flores alleges that the New York Giants interviewed him for the position of head coach, even though the position had already been given to Brian Daboll. His proof? Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, accidentally congratulated Flores for getting the position days before he even interviewed. Belichick quickly realized his mistake and told Flores, “I think they are naming Daboll.”  

They can slap “End Racism” stickers on their players’ helmets. They can put out melodramatic commercials calling for change. They can give untimely apologies to those who were punished for protesting. The NFL can parade themselves as an organization that embraces diversity and change all they want. However, if their hiring practices are found to be discriminatory, their efforts are nothing more than performative activism.

Even if Flores’ lawsuit is dismissed, the effectiveness of the NFL’s policies can still be called into question. As of January 2022, the only Black head coach currently working in the NFL is Mike Tomlin, who has coached the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007. It’s been nearly 20 years since the Rooney Rule was implemented, but the results are still stagnant and unpromising. 

Now, I’m no expert in football. While I do have my own opinions about who should or shouldn’t be in the league, I am not in the position to offer expertise on hiring practices. I’m also not asking for the NFL to be the catalyst for a civil rights movement. I’m just asking that the NFL practices what it preaches. If the league promotes itself as an organization that is dedicated to racial justice, then its actions should reflect just that. The league can’t be an advocate for racial justice in its advertisements but discriminatory in its practices. The NFL must take action to prove that its dedication to improving racial justice is a genuine effort and not just a facade of progressiveness. 

Loretta David is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opin[email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.