The hiring season for head coaches in the N.F.L., the world’s richest sports organization, is nearing its end the way it almost does.
Four N.F.L. teams replaced their head coaches, and only one of the new hires was not white. After reaching a high-water mark of eight minority coaches two years ago, the league has just four now, with the Cleveland Browns still deciding who their next head coach will be.
The dearth of coaches of color stands out in a league in which about three-quarters of the players are black, a figure that has steadily risen during the past several decades. The Giants have been criticized by diversity advocates for choosing Joe Judge, a white man, to be their new head coach even though he has no such experience. He does have recommendations from prominent coaches he had worked for, including Bill Belichick, who has led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl championships.
Judge “just has a certain presence about him,” Giants co-owner John Mara said, in explaining why Judge stood out.
For many, Mara’s explanation of how the Giants settled on Judge encapsulated the flawed processes and thinking that many of the country’s elite institutions, the N.F.L. included, follow when evaluating candidates for top positions. Yet the N.F.L.’s failures stand out because black athletes dominate team rosters and the league has long struggled with race issues.
Hiring processes often include nods toward inclusion. In the N.F.L.’s case, that is the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to “interview at least one diverse candidate from the Career Development Advisory Panel list or a diverse candidate not currently employed by the club.”
The rule has been around since 2003, yet when it’s time to choose a leader, decision makers, who are largely white, have usually selected someone who looks like them and they are rarely punished for violating the letter or the spirit of the rule. In addition to the paucity of coaches of color, just two teams employ minority general managers, the senior football position in N.F.L. front offices.
The N.F.L. is not alone. According to a report last year from Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance, white executives accounted for 80.7 percent of the corporate board seats filled from 2016 to 2018 at Fortune 500 companies. Currently, there are just four black chief executives at Fortune 500 companies.
Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which tracks diversity at major sports leagues, said the N.F.L. and corporate America have the same self-inflicted problem — a failure to provide access to the clubby, largely white and male world at the highest echelon of power.
“Corporations are definitely not stocked with women and minorities at its higher ranks,” Lapchick said. “It’s very much a white man’s environment.”
But unlike large corporations, which have the flexibility to create new positions and can define success in a multitude of ways, the N.F.L. has a stark racial contrast between its players and coaches that is hard to hide when millions of fans see the team sidelines every weekend. This has turned into a source of embarrassment for the league.
“When we look at the numbers, they’re not where they should be,” Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations at the N.F.L., said last month. “Who can pound their chest and be proud of what we see?”
Recently, the main avenue to head coaching jobs in the N.F.L. has been experience guiding an offense, a role in which minorities have been underrepresented. Among the 32 teams this season, there were two African-American offensive coordinators and 10 defensive coordinators.
In November, the N.F.L. acknowledged that it must do more to promote diversity when it hired Dasha Smith as its chief people officer, responsible for “talent and diversity strategies” and other initiatives. Smith previously worked at Sony Music, Time Inc. and at an investment firm.
Unlike big corporations like Sony that have boards and shareholders, the N.F.L.’s 32 owners essentially govern themselves. Commissioner Roger Goodell serves at the pleasure of the owners, and he cannot force them to hire coaches of color, nor can he impose quotas. He rarely uses his bully pulpit to pressure the owners about hiring practices or anything else.
Marvin Lewis, who is black and has been without a head coaching job since 2018, acknowledged that owners are essentially unaccountable. “This is somebody’s business, this is somebody’s franchise, and nobody’s going to tell them who to hire,” said Lewis, who guided the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs seven times in 16 seasons as head coach.
Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, said the actions of N.F.L. owners give him little faith that they have any interest in changing their ways. Just two N.F.L. owners are not white.
“Owners still look a certain way, they still come from a very old background,” Sherman said. “They could not care less.”
Race continues to be a fraught issue for the N.F.L. The league was roiled when black players knelt during the playing of the national anthem to shine a light on police brutality. The controversy went into hyper-drive when President Trump urged the owners to fire players who protested. Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback who popularized kneeling during the anthem, has been out of work since 2017.
This year, each of the five teams with open head coaching slots reportedly spoke with candidates of color. The Carolina Panthers, Giants and Cleveland Browns interviewed Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The Dallas Cowboys brought in Lewis. So far, only Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic and was fired last year by the Panthers, has received a job, as head coach in Washington.
Diversity advocates say that the preference for white coaches and general managers is unlikely to change much until more team owners are people of color.
While 28 percent of management jobs at the league headquarters belong to people of color, the representation among the teams’ top front-office executives is 11 percent, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which compiles an annual report on the hiring of women and minorities in the N.F.L.
“People hire people they’re comfortable with, and the people you feel most comfortable with are people with similar ideas,” said Rod Graves, a former N.F.L. general manager and league executive who now runs the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in football.
Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys, hired Mike McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. Both men are white. While the Cowboys followed the Rooney Rule and interviewed minority candidates, Jones revealed that he’d had his heart set on McCarthy all along.
“I knew Mike McCarthy long before he ever walked through these doors,” Jones said on Wednesday. “So much more went into how and why he’s sitting at this table today.”
The job interview, it seemed, was a mere formality.
As for the Giants, Mara touted the team’s search process, which he said included “the deepest and most talented group of candidates that I’ve seen.” Judge, 38, who until this season had never coached a unit in the N.F.L. other than special teams, prevailed because of his intangibles, Mara said.
Experts say the only way the N.F.L. will change is if the owners take it upon themselves to expand their view of available candidates.
The Rooney Rule could require teams to interview minority candidates not just for head coach and general manager, but for other coaching jobs. The rule could be expanded to front office positions, Graves at the Fritz Pollard Alliance said. The league office took a similar step in 2016 when it mandated that at least one woman be interviewed for any executive openings in the N.F.L. head office.
However, any rule forcing change would require N.F.L. owners to do something they rarely do — strip themselves of the power to do what they want.