The Indianapolis Colts recently made news by creating a program to promote diverse coaches in the National Football League by earning fellowships on the Colts’ coaching staff. The Colts named the Tony Dungy Diversity Fellowship after the head coach who led the team to victory in Super Bowl LXI, making him the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl.
While the move by the Colts earned justified praise, it’s considered a first step in the right direction after years of controversy over how the NFL promotes — or more to the point doesn’t promote — Black head coaches.
The fellowship comes at a time when the NFL has three Black head coaches in a league of 32 teams where about 70% of players are Black. One of the three is Mike Tomlin, who has coached the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007. The other two are new hires: Lovie Smith for the Houston Texans and Mike McDaniel, who identifies as biracial, for the Miami Dolphins.
It also comes not long after former Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores sued the NFL, charging that teams engage in discriminatory practices against Black coaches in their hiring practices.
Sports both in the United States and around the world have become far more diverse in terms of the players on the field, which in itself is a big improvement over the situation in the 20th century. But when it comes to coaches, the track record is much less impressive.
How The Tony Dungy Fellowship Works
The Dungy Fellowship will allow the Colts to add two diverse assistant coaches – one on offense and one on defense. These “Dungy Fellows” will go through a process to earn the position, including interviews with a committee that includes Dungy, the Irsay family that owns the Colts, General Manager Chris Ballard and Head Coach Frank Reich.
The idea is to get young, diverse coaches working with an organization that will focus on giving them an experience that will help them succeed as their career progresses. Ideally, it will help coaches become better candidates for head coaching jobs. It’s a two-way street: the Colts also benefit from having ambitious, innovative coaches on the team’s staff.
Dungy called the move “a proactive step” and added, “I hope it encourages other teams to look for ways to promote equal opportunities in the coaching ranks.”
Differences From the Rooney Rule
The Dungy Fellowship focuses on promoting diverse coaches by giving them more experience on a professional team’s staff and giving them a chance to become part of the coaching network earlier in their careers. That’s a different approach than the current Rooney Rule, put in place by the NFL in 2003 to promote the hiring of Black coaches.
The Rooney Rule requires owners to interview at least one diverse candidate for a head coach position. It’s named after the late Dan Rooney, owner of the Steelers and then-chair of the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee.
In later years, the NFL expanded the rule to include general managers and other front-office positions. In 2021, they amended the rule once again, requiring interviews with two minority candidates for head coaching positions and one minority candidate for coordinator jobs.
However, the rule has not worked as planned.
Diverse Hiring Trending in the Wrong Direction
As pointed out in a statistical analysis by FiveThirtyEight in 2019, only 12.5% of games in the 2019 NFL season featured teams led by Black coaches, a drop from a high of 27.1% in 2011 (it also reached 27% in 2017).
Things haven’t changed since that analysis. Of the nine coaching vacancies during the offseason in the spring of 2022, teams filled seven of them with white coaches. The two Black hires were Smith in Houston and McDaniel in Miami. The NFL considers McDaniel Black. The coach himself identifies as biracial (he has a white mother and a Black father).
The NFL also lists Washington Commanders Coach Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, and New York Jets Coach Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese ancestry, as minority coaches.
The three Black head coaches equal the same number of Black head coaches for the 2021 season.
Sham Interviews for NFL Coaching Jobs
In his lawsuit, Flores details how teams can meet the letter but not the spirit of the Rooney Rule. He said both the New York Giants and Denver Broncos brought him in for interviews to meet the terms of the Rooney Rule but never intended to hire him.
He’s far from the first to talk about the issue. In recent years, Black head coach candidates have become more vocal about getting called in for interviews knowing they have no shot at the job. Others argue that Black coaches are often brought in to clean up a mess left by white coaches, then replaced by another white coach.
Major League Baseball currently has two Black managers and four Hispanic managers in a league with 30 teams. About 8% of MLB players are Black, while 31% are Hispanic.
The NBA doubled its number of Black coaches before the 2021-2022 season to 43% of teams. About 74% of NBA players are Black, as are a vast majority of the biggest stars.
The problem extends beyond the United States. In England’s Premier League, only 10 Black coaches have ever led a club. The 10th, former French midfielder Patrick Vieira, just started this season as manager of Crystal Palace FC. About 25% of Premier League players are Black.
Clearly, sports around the world have a long way to go to create as much diversity on the sidelines and in the front office as they have done on the field.