‘Relationships matter’: The NFL’s effort to get minority candidates talking with owners

‘Relationships matter’: The NFL’s effort to get minority candidates talking with owners

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told a story to the 62 minority coaches and front office personnel assembled this week at the NFL owners’ meeting in the latest league effort to improve diversity in hiring.

It was about Will McClay, who is African American and the Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel. He has been with the team for 20 years, first as a scout before moving up the ranks. During his early years with the team, he showed up uninvited at one of Jones’ grandkid’s graduations.

The point of the story is that McClay had made an extra effort to get to know his boss and his family, to network, something Jones recommended his audience replicate.

“Jones said, ‘If you go after something with the passion and energy that says I want one of only 32 things that exist in the world (for those wanting to be a head coach), then the people who evaluate you will recognize that even though you’re taking some risks,’” said Michael Huyghue, a sports law professor at Cornell who is the chief programming consultant at the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is advising the NFL on its diversity efforts. “He told them to distinguish themselves, do something that shows that passion. And don’t be afraid to bring whatever is authentic to the table.”

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones addressed prospective minority candidates at the NFL’s Accelerator program this week. (Matthew Emmons / USA Today)

The league is under scrutiny for its minority hiring practices, underscored by former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores’ discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and several of its teams. Only five of the NFL’s 32 head coaches are of a minority in a league where the vast majority of players are African American.

The league has made improvements in some employment areas and has been expanding the Rooney Rule to mandate not just minority interviews for head coach positions, but for front office and other coaching positions. In fact, this week the league added quarterbacks coach to the list of jobs that require minority candidate interviews.

And the league put in place restrictions to slow down the head coach hiring process.

“Slowing down we’ve heard from many, many teams that that’s allowed them to really expand their search to a much wider candidate pool,” said Kim Pegula, the Bills co-owner, who is Asian. “And we have the numbers to prove that there have been more diverse candidates.”

But the NFL’s Accelerator program, the name of the meeting to put the dozens of minority coaches and front office officials in front of owners and key executives, is a signal the league is well aware something is wrong.

Asked why it is necessary for minorities, but not whites, to get in front of the owners to network and get advice, Samir Suleiman, the Panthers’ vice president of football administration, said, “You’d have to ask the owners, I couldn’t tell you.”

Born to an Argentinian mother and Palestinian father, Suleiman praised the Accelerator for showing him that despite being in the league since 1997, the former James Madison football player has to network to get ahead.

“I was always taught to work hard and just do your job well, and people will know about you, and I just don’t think you can do that anymore,” he said. “I think you need programs like this to help assist candidates get on the radar of owners that are going to be hiring.”

Huyghue said particularly minority coaches have avoided promoting themselves for fear of alienating their peers.

“A lot of folks had the view that if I look like I’m promoting myself, as a minority, it’s being seen as opportunistic, and it can hurt you in the sense that you’d be going against your locker room if you reached out to the media and establish relationships so that they could promote you as an up-and-coming person,” he said. “So there were a lot of things that were sort of taboo, that I think we had to dispel. Like, you don’t need to walk in with a 60-page book and say, ‘Here’s my coaching plan for the first 90 days.’”

Aaron Glenn, the former cornerback and current Lions defensive coordinator, described the two days in Atlanta as “outstanding.” But he also added now that he and his peers have started networking with owners and know to promote themselves, the onus is on the teams.

“I have to make sure I prepare myself in the interviews to make sure I can show that I’m ready to be a head coach,” said Glenn, who is African American. “And then it’s not on me anymore, it’s up to the owners. And that’s just my honest opinion.”

In addition to hearing as a group from owners like Jones, and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the attendees participated in what was lightly billed as speed dating. Groups of five or six would sit at a table with a handful of owners for about 15 minutes getting to know one another.

“Relationships matter in life,” Blank observed. The Home Depot co-founder, who often talks of his friendship with civil rights pioneer Andrew Young, conceded the meetings were rushed and more time was needed for barriers to come down between the owners and attendees.

But given the rosy words coming from each side, the parties expect the Accelerator program to continue and become an annual occurrence.

Suleiman, who has been in the league for 2 1/2 decades, bouncing between the league and teams, said he was struck by another story Jones told.

Before Jones hit it big in the oil business, he sold insurance in the 1960s in Arkansas. One of his targets was Sam Walton before he would become famous for founding Wal-Mart. Walton turned him down, but Jones said he persisted and finally sold the insurance.

“Jerry had some good stories about his past and business deals and about just being assertive and persistent,” Suleiman said.

Huyghue nodded to those who are skeptical about the Accelerator, viewing it as just diversity window dressing by the league, though nearly every owner participated. He came away convinced it was not a phony attempt to deflect attention away from the league’s troubled record in hiring minority head coaches, general managers and team presidents.

“It was a challenge to come in and win people over that this riff is something different, and that this outcome is going to be different,” he said. “The process of becoming a head coach or GM is ultimately dependent upon networking and getting to know some of these owners and decision-makers. And never really having had the access to them before this is a very important first step in giving people confidence that there’s meaningful intent in terms of improving diversity hiring.”

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