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The Diversity Lessons the NCAA Can Learn From the NFL

It only took a few hours after the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts advanced to this year’s Super Bowl before the e-mails began flying around touting the “Soul Bowl.”

Professional football fans, particularly African-Americans, were instantly ecstatic that for the first time two National Football League teams led by Black coaches will be facing each other in the nation’s most popular annual sporting event.

It even caused Cyrus Mehri, a Washington, D.C. civil rights attorney, to smile.

“It was a joyful feeling, that history was made by two people who are not only great coaches, but great people,” Mehri says.

Merhi co-authored a 2002 study with famed late attorney Johnnie Cochran that took the NFL to task for its historically dismal record of hiring Black head coaches. At that time, only five Black men had held head coaching positions in the league’s modern history. 

Their study suggested ways to make sure minority coaches could be developed and trained. More importantly, it helped form and implement the “Rooney Rule,” which was named after Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney, who headed a league committee looking into the issue. The rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority for each NFL head coaching opening. Not doing so will result in heavy fines from league officials.

Since then, several Black head coaches and administrators have been hired for various positions throughout the National Football League.

In fact, Rooney’s Steelers interviewed one Hispanic candidate, the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, during their January head coaching search before hiring Mike Tomlin, a Black defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. Earlier this week, Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, currently an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers, interviewed for the vacant Dallas Cowboys head coaching slot.

“The report became a catalyst for change,” Mehri says. “They took responsibility and said, ‘We recognize that more needs to be done.’”

If only collegiate athletics could follow suit, he and others say.

“We think there is no reason the same can’t happen in the colleges as it has in the pros,” Mehri says.

But college football, particularly the elite Division I programs, have been slow to follow the professional ranks.

The issue has long been talked about, especially now that Black players make up a large percentage of the athletes who participate in the NCAA’s biggest and most profitable sports, football and basketball.

While Blacks have long since made strides into the college basketball coaching fraternity, the numbers for college football have been anemic at best. Last season, there were only five Black head coaches among the 119 Division 1-A programs. Only one, the University of Washington’s Tyrone Willingham, had held that title for more than four years.

The Black Coaches Association, which is soon changing its name to the Diverse Coaches Association, has published its annual report card for how NCAA schools are doing in terms of hiring minority coaches.

The results have been less than impressive.

“People of color need to start ‘shopping and buying’ at the stores [institutions] that value, promote and reflect inclusion and diversity,” said BCA Executive Director Floyd Keith in a statement the group released along with its findings last fall. “When student-athletes of color start making decisions to play where it is most likely that they have a fair and equitable opportunity to eventually coach and become an administrator, we will then, and only then, start to see a difference in the hiring process.”

Mehri says NCAA schools — which he says should have an easier time implementing diverse hiring practices since they have the institutional know-how at their hands — should be punished by the taking away of scholarships if they don’t do a better job in diversifying their hires.

But until then, Mehri is basking in the happiness of seeing the Bears’ Lovie Smith and the Colts’ Tony Dungy coach their squads in this weekend’s Super Bowl game.

“I wished that Johnnie was alive to enjoy the moment,” Mehri said.

–Add Seymour Jr.


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