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February 07, 2022

John McMullen: It's time to shine the diversity light on the NFL's owners, not their mouthpiece

Opinion NFL
121721RogerGoodell Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Is Roger Goodell to blame for the NFL's diversity issues?

Critics have their latest smoking gun, the minute a “without merit” claim by the NFL in Brian Flores' class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and other incendiary charges against the league and some of its member teams turned into “unacceptable.”

Perhaps midway through the latest victory lap, however, some of those pundits will start to wrestle with the actual issue that still needs to be addressed nearly 20 years after the Rooney Rule was first adopted: how do you actually fix a problem that has been stipulated to time and time again?

"Racism and any form of discrimination is contrary to the NFL's values,” commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a memo distributed to the league’s 32 teams on Saturday. “We have made significant efforts to promote diversity and adopted numerous policies and programs which have produced positive change in many areas, however, we must acknowledge that particularly with respect to head coaches the results have been unacceptable.”

If you believe the latest Goodell missive is breaking new ground you're either ill-informed or worse, willfully ignorant.

Consider Troy Vincent’s words from December of 2020.

“The facts are the facts,” Vincent, the former Eagles’ star cornerback and the NFL’s current executive vice president of football operations, told The Washington Post. “None of the sports leagues are doing this well. 

“When you look at mobility of Black men and Black women in professional sports, it’s poor. So what we had to do is control what we can control and look at and examine what we are doing. … We have done a thorough examination of what we’re doing wrong, what doesn’t work. But there’s no best practices in sports. Let’s be straight. Let’s be honest. We can go to every sport from basketball, hockey, baseball, here: Diversity, we’re not seeing what we all hope for. We’re not seeing true inclusion.”

Remove the emotion from any equation and the goal becomes simpler — that's problem-solving 101. But, in the era of outrage where the only thing faster than a hot take is the ability to put it on social media in all of its unfiltered glory, few can get past the white noise to even identify the crux of a hot-button issue, never mind come up with the far more important task: the actual solution.

The Rooney Rule is at the front and center of the pro football world yet again after Flores took a blowtorch to the league stemming from a messy divorce in Miami, alleging racial discrimination by the New York Giants and Denver Broncos for using him to check a league-mandated box and trying to take down his old boss. You can add tanking and tampering allegations to Stephen Ross in Miami, the kind of alliteration that could get the “Michigan Man” kicked out of perhaps the most exclusive club in the world outside the United States Senate. 

There are two undeniable truths at work here that are hardly mutually exclusive. 

The NFL’s history with diversity is dismal and the contextually bankrupt scoreboard reads 1-for-7 (depending on who is doing the scorekeeping) in this year’s hiring cycle after Flores' former team, the Dolphins, hired former San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, who is multiracial. Before the McDaniel hire there was just one African-American coach in the league, future Hall of Fame mentor Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. With two jobs now left to fill everyone already knows the history is dismal, including those at 345 Park Avenue.

Houston ruled out Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon over the weekend is reportedly down to Josh McCown, Love Smith or Flores, who was reported as a finalist by many, admittedly hard to believe after his offensive against the league late last week. The New Orleans Saints, meanwhile, are still likely to stay in-house with Sean Payton defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, although Kansas City OC Eric Bieniemy got an interview.

If form holds true, a league in which over 70% of the players are African-American will have one or two head coaches depending on the critic as representation and Tomlin just happens to come from Dan Rooney’s team, the former owner of the Steelers and former chairman of the league's diversity committee who passed away in April of 2017.

Even if you want to ignore league officials already acknowledging the problem, the Rooney Rule itself is now almost old enough to vote after being enacted in 2003 and serves as a tacit admission, an altruistic but deeply flawed piece of internal legislation that forced the league’s real power brokers – the 32 owners – to check those boxes some find abhorrent. 

And perhaps that was a plan. Shame the owners into doing something by forcing them to at least look at the man in the mirror and consider any pre-conceived bias.

It hasn't worked to this point, though, so let’s be straight for a moment and at least highlight the root of the problem which would unofficially eliminate well over 90% of a disingenuous back and forth

Those who regard the NFL as a monolith should step away from the debate stage because if you can’t understand the structure of the league what does droning on about Goodell accomplish?

The commissioner can’t pick up the phone and order any of the owners to do anything. Yet, to this day, many of the same critics still steadfastly believe Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL because why not? It’s an easy narrative to sell.

In June of 2020 former league spokesman Joe Lockhart, who is far better known in the real world for his role as White House Press Secretary during the Bill Clinton administration,  wrote an op-ed for CNN during the civil rights unrest stemming from George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis

Lockhart, a progressive ideologue by any measure, was tortured that the league couldn’t get anyone to bite on Kaepernick and his emotion spilled over which was pushed as some kind of admittance by the disingenuous and/or obtuse aggregation warriors.

“I was wrong. I think the teams were wrong for not signing him. Watching what's going on in Minnesota, I understand how badly wrong we were," Lockhart wrote in the part of the editorial.

Most, however, conveniently ignored the context where Lockhart actually explained the exact opposite sentiment.

“Kaepernick was not blocked because the league wanted to punish him for setting off the protests,” Lockhart wrote. “In fact, just the opposite is true. The commissioner and several other league executives spent a lot of effort prodding and pushing owners to sign him.”

Rewind even further to Sept. of 2017 and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, also a very politically liberal or progressive thinker, explained things in a similar fashion when this reporter asked Lurie what he would say to fans who believe Kaepernick has been blackballed by his league.

"I think the definition of being 'blacklisted' is some discussion among some people to not hire, not approve, or something like that," Lurie said at the time. "I've never had a discussion with anybody. It doesn't work that way. There's no communication whatsoever. We're very competitive against each other, 32 owners."

Time after time, from Lockhart to Lurie to Vincent and Goodell himself have explained the issues over the past few years never mind the two decades since the Rooney Rule was first implemented and too few want to believe any of it.

All politics are local and the NFL needs grassroots change that the boogeyman can’t provide.

Goodell might be your Bond villain but that’s the Hollywood-script version of real life because if SPECTRE had a board with 32 branches making individual decisions things become a lot less interesting.

“I think it streams back to who has the owner's ears within a building,” former league executive Randy Mueller told me. “I think there's a lot of people in the owner's ears. there's a lot of people telling them how important they are and how we don't need this or don't need that because we have that covered and so we're just going to hire a coach to roll out game plans every week.”

Coaching hires are about relationships and those politics, especially in the modern environment where the corporate buzzword of collaboration has created more cooks in the kitchen than ever before. 

“... [Some] don't want too much a leader, too much of a personality. We found that out a little bit with Brian Flores in Miami,” Mueller surmised. “They [just] wanted a coach. It’s a tough dynamic to measure because every franchise is different and every franchise needs a different type of coach.”

The template is now the Sean McVay tree for most but the bigger issue when it comes to changing minority hiring practices can’t be solved by pretending the NFL is that monolith with centralized power serving as the antagonist in your favorite reboot of good vs. evil. 

One quote on problem-solving from Albert Einstein has always stuck with me: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” 

The quality of any solution stems from an ability to identify the problem you hope to solve.

Too few in the NFL universe, be it the critics or those they criticize, can use 60 minutes of problem-solving time in a productive fashion so we remain stuck on the treadmill. 

John McMullen is a contributor to, and covers the Eagles and the NFL for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Media. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at Follow John on Twitter here.