Courtside: Newest proposal is the wrong answer to NFL’s diversity problem

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn summed it up nicely Friday: “I think sometimes you can do the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing.”

I get what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is going for, and I believe his intentions are good. 

On Friday, ESPN NFL reporter Jim Trotter reported that the league was proposing rule changes that would boost a team’s third-round draft pick by six or 10 points if it hired a person of color as head coach or general manager, respectively. It also provides a five-spot jump in the fourth round of the draft before that coach or general manager’s third season with the team, should they be retained that long.

The proposal comes just a few months after Goodell voiced his dissatisfaction with the NFL’s Rooney Rule during Super Bowl weekend in Miami. The rule, which requires teams to interview at least one underrepresented candidate for head coaching and football operations jobs, clearly hasn’t had its desired effect: Marginalized groups make up four of the NFL’s 32 head coaches — one of those four being Lynn — and two of 32 general managers.

Goodell knows this is a problem — especially in a league that comprises more than 70% Black players — and at least his new proposal, an addition to the Rooney Rule, seems to acknowledge that the original version isn’t the answer. 

But if only that proposal didn’t bring about its own set of problems in addition to the ones it was meant to address. Because a system in which people of color are treated as tokens is absolutely the wrong way to go about improving diversity, and that’s exactly what the proposal would create. 

While diversity is something that the league and its respective teams should value, it’s not something that should be achieved through incentives. In fact, that runs counter to the very point of diversity in the first place. Hires will no longer be about increasing African American representation in positions of power; they will be about generating the false notion that the league and owners value diversity when, in reality, there are tangible rewards to be reaped off the backs of the marginalized people in these leadership positions. People of color will inevitably be seen as simple figureheads exploited by teams to boost their chances at a sought-after prospect in the upcoming draft, rather than someone qualified for doing the job well.

The tangible effects of the rule change will admittedly be minimal. Teams won’t all of a sudden put someone in prominent organizational roles with tons of power just to improve their mid-draft position by a few slots in hopes of landing their preferred backup quarterback if they feel that a particular coaching candidate isn’t right for the job. But that’s not the issue. 

The issue is that each time a person of color is hired, each time they’re given authority, the narrative surrounding the hire will be the same: “Well, are they really qualified, or do they just want a better draft pick?” Of course they’re fucking qualified. That shouldn’t even be a question. The NFL shouldn’t give anyone a reason to ask it. 

Hell, it might even decrease the number of people of color in prominent roles. Every owner will know that the narrative described in the former half of the previous paragraph will persist; they’ll know that hiring a person of color will lead plenty of fans to scrutinize the organization for using a person of color as a mere tool for obtaining a better pick. Even if that’s never the case, teams won’t want that perception to exist in the first place. So, they may avoid it altogether.

Lynn’s opposition of the proposal hardly scratches the surface of the near-universal disapproval from Black people both inside and outside the league. 

Dez Bryant, a Black free agent wide receiver, retweeted a tweet from Bleacher Report announcing the proposal and remarked, “I’m going to act like I didn’t read this smh.” 

Louis Riddick, a Black former NFL player and current on-air talent for ESPN, added his own thoughts: “If these policies are implemented, the first day I walk into the building, I know people with that organization would wonder: ‘Did he get this job because he’s the best man for the job, or did he get it at least in part because it gives us a big break in the draft?’ On the first day of the job, that team would be undermining its own hire by injecting doubt in the minds of the people who work in the building. Is that how you really want a GM to start off his career?”

Rob Parker, a Black sports journalist for TV20 Detroit and a contributor to Fox Sports 1’s talk show “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed,” weighed in as well: “Somehow, NFL executives think it’s fair to put capable black coaches in the unenviable position of appearing as though they’re not actually qualified, but have their jobs just because of the improved pick.”

The list goes on and on. You get the point — nobody likes it.

Parker raises another interesting issue worth considering: “It’s crazy to think that despite playing football at such a high level, making up roughly 70 percent of the players in the league, that owners would have to be enticed to want black people in their organizations.”

He’s 100% right. He proposes players take matters into their own hands and refuse to sign with teams that don’t extend enough opportunities to people of color. Once owners feel the financial ramifications, they’ll hopefully change. Knowing the general greed of NFL owners and their valuation of money above all else, he’s probably right about that as well, though it is an unfortunate reality that money is the only way to inspire such change. 

There are ways to go about improving the NFL’s diversity without systematically rewarding teams for taking advantage of people of color, and ideas such as Parker’s are a perfect example. The league is trying to get to the right destination, but the road there — at least the one outlined Friday — is undeniably the wrong one.

Nathan Ackerman is a rising junior writing about sports and sociopolitics. He is also a managing editor of Summer Trojan. His column, “Courtside,” runs every other Wednesday.