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NFL continues to make progress toward equality

Roger Goodell's commitment to diversity gets high marks from the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Our students in the DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida were in the NFL league office two weeks ago. Leading off in an array of leaders from various departments to meet the students, commissioner Roger Goodell spent considerable time answering questions. He started by saying, "I met Richard Lapchick approximately 30 years ago when we were discussing diversity."

Three decades later we are still discussing it by issuing the National Football League Racial and Gender Report Cards (RGRC), as well as reports on all the other professional leagues, colleges and universities, and the media. We issued the 2016 NFL RGRC on Wednesday. I was the primary author of the report with co-authors Craig Malveaux, Erin Davison and Caryn Grant.

In previous administrations with commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, progress was slow. Grades for racial and gender hiring practices stagnated while much attention was paid to the critical positions of head coach and general manager -- positions rare for African-Americans to hold. In fact, it was not until 1989 that the NFL had an African-American head coach in the modern era with the Raiders hiring of Art Shell. It was another 13 years in 2002 before the Ravens made Ozzie Newsome the first African-American GM.

I was approached by civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri who was working with Johnnie Cochran to present a study on how bad the NFL hiring record was. I told Cyrus that publishing another study would not have as much meaning as threatening legal action against the NFL. He agreed and a news release to that effect was sent out before a meeting with the league.

On Oct. 23, 2002, Cyrus and I went to the NFL office to meet with senior leaders Jeff Pash, the NFL's in-house counsel, and executive vice president Harold Henderson, the highest-ranking minority executive in the league and someone I considered a friend. Commissioner Tagliabue did not attend. At the time of the meeting, there were only two African-American head coaches: Tony Dungy in Indianapolis and his former assistant, Herman Edwards, with the New York Jets.

It was, as we would have guessed, a chilly reception but seemed somewhat productive. The lawsuit was taken off the table to see what the NFL would do. The meeting received significant media coverage. The Rooney Rule, which required a diverse pool of candidates for head coaching jobs, was adopted a few months after the meeting. It was inspired by Steelers owner Dan Rooney and quickly led to significant changes. Since then, Mike Tomlin helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XLV in 2011, their second Super Bowl appearance in his tenure. In doing so, he became the first African-American head coach to lead a team to two Super Bowls. In 2010, Jim Caldwell helped lead the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl in his first season as head coach. The Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears faced off in the 2007 Super Bowl with two African-Americans, Dungy and Lovie Smith, leading their respective teams. It was the first time this had happened in the NFL. Sometime later the NFL informed me that they would no longer cooperate with providing data for the Racial and Gender Report Card. Thus in subsequent years we could not include the league office because we did not have the data and focused only on the record of the teams. With no league office data, we did not have enough information to issue a grade for gender. I had no communication with the NFL in spite of several attempts to reopen lines of communication. In the meantime, attorney Mehri worked with the NFL to make progress.

I will always remember taking a call from commissioner Goodell shortly after he took office. He said he wanted to discuss with me, as he was doing with others, his view on forming a consistent and rigorous policy on player behavior. I was glad that the line seemed open and asked for a meeting in his office, which followed soon thereafter. We discussed diversity at length. He enthusiastically told me that the NFL just hired a Senior Vice President named Robert Gulliver who would head up human resources and focus on diversity. In addition, the NFL resumed cooperation with the Racial and Gender Report Card.

When Gulliver took over, the grades were still poor. But gradually the grade for racial hiring practices increased to the point where they have now received seven consecutive grades in the A range for racial hiring practices.

Historically, the grades for gender hiring lagged behind to the point where the NFL even got a D-plus in this category in 2004, which was the last grade for gender after the NFL stopped providing league data. The grade resumed in 2009 when cooperation resumed. Starting in 2009 until 2015 it received a series of Cs with grades between 69 and 74 points out of 100.

After the Ray Rice story broke in 2014, the NFL came under great scrutiny for policies on gender violence perpetrated by players. That created a spotlight on the low number of senior women working in the league office and on teams. I believed that if there were senior women on board to advise the commissioner, then the story might have taken the NFL on a different and more proactive path on the issue of gender violence.

In the Report Card issued the year before the Rice story, the NFL had 69 points for gender. Redoubling their efforts and hiring women at senior leadership positions in the NFL and, to some degree on teams, the NFL jumped a stunning six points to 75 in 2015. In the newly released 2016 Report, it increased to 76 points for another C-plus on gender hiring practices.

In the league office, the number of women and people of color at or above the vice president level continued to increase. In 2014, there were 14 people of color at or above the VP level. In 2015, there were 21 and in 2016, that number jumped to 24 people of color. Similarly, the number of women at or above the VP level increased from 31 to 35 in 2016.

Just as the commissioner pointed out the hiring of Gulliver several years ago, he told me and the students that Cathy Lanier was named the NFL's new Senior Vice President of Security. Lanier had served as the Chief of Police for the Metropolitan Police Department for the District of Columbia for 10 years.

While C-plus is not great, it does represent progress. The A grade for race is an overall look at all positions across the league office and the teams where progress is strong and is modeled by the league office and the commissioner. There are areas of concern in the NFL with only six head coaches of color. That leaves it two below the NFL's all-time high of eight. Only two of the 14 most recent openings have been filled by a person of color. Twenty-one of the 22 first-time hires between 2012-2016 were white. According to an ESPN story, "94 percent of head coaches hired over the past 20 years (133 of 141) had been NFL coordinators, pro head coaches (including interim) or college head coaches previously." Unfortunately for aspiring coaches of color, those jobs are overwhelmingly held by whites. There is no Rooney Rule for coordinators or college coaches. Since 2007, I have been urging the adoption of an "Eddie Robinson Rule" named after the iconic Grambling coach and patterned after the Rooney Rule. We also need a Rooney Rule for coordinators.

In the new NFL RGRC, the percentage of assistant coaches of color had a very sharp drop from 37.9 percent in 2015 to 31.9 percent in the 2016 season. The number of GMs of color dropped from seven in 2015 to five in 2016. Those figures demand serious attention and the teams need to follow the modeling of the NFL league office.

As commissioner Goodell told the DeVos students, "Richard and I have disagreed on things." From the discussion about race in the 1980s when few were talking about it, to the progress in his 10 years as commissioner, it is clear that his interest in diversity and inclusion has led to significant progress in this area. While he is often criticized for other things -- as he said we "disagree on things" -- on these issues commissioner Goodell deserves the credit that I am suggesting here.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the President of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook at facebook.com/richard.lapchick.