There are many tributes pouring in as Paul Tagliabue steps down as NFL commissioner. He leaves a sport that is thriving beyond most forecasters' imagination. The economic vitality of the league is beyond compare and seemingly secure with labor peace, loyal fans and fabulously wealthy TV contracts.
Today the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport released the 2005 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card. It measures the NFL's hiring practices by race and gender. While the NFL still does poorly with women in key positions, its record on race has continuously improved over the past decade, especially in the past five years. The NFL had its highest grade ever, with a B+ for race. In fact, it came close to an A-. The report shows the NFL reached all-time highs in the key positions of head coach, general manager and assistant coach.
In the midst of the growth of the NFL's big picture, the issue of race has barely been mentioned as the commissioner winds down his tenure. But it is the issue I write and speak about among other social issues in sport, so I have watched the decades of his work as commissioner more than just as a fan. When he took control of the league as commissioner on Nov. 5, 1989, more than 50 percent of players were African-American, but there had been no African-American head coaches or general managers in the modern history of the game. I will always remember that one of his first acts was to remove the Super Bowl from Arizona because the state refused to honor Martin Luther King Day. I took it as a statement by him of a core value.
I never doubted he wanted to increase opportunities for African-Americans in league and team leadership roles off the field. But he did not control what teams did, so his lead in the NFL should have been a barometer. Early on came Harold Henderson as the head of the critical NFL Management Council. Labor peace had been elusive and previous player/management relations had been explosive. Henderson, who is African-American, helped craft the best labor relations in pro sports. In the most recent figures obtained from the NFL (from the 2002 season), 26 percent of management positions in the league office were held by people of color. Ray Anderson recently was hired in the league office as senior vice president for football operations and is the first African-American in the key position.
Yet on the club level, there was minimal progress. A decade into his tenure, the NFL had gone from zero to three African-American head coaches and no general managers. Major League Baseball was also moving slowly while the NBA was way ahead at all senior levels.
More years went by and the NFL seemed stuck at the number of African-American head coaches: three. MLB commissioner Bud Selig, bogged down with baseball's slow progress, mandated a diverse pool of candidates for all manager and general manager positions. MLB went from three to nine managers of color and zero to two GMs who were either Latino or African-American.
In the fall of 2002, Washington civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri called me to see if I would join him and renowned attorney Johnny Cochran in using a new study about the success of African-American coaches in the NFL to pressure teams to change their woeful hiring practices in the area of head coaches. At that time, the NFL had the worst record by far when compared to the NBA and Major League Baseball. I went with Mehri to the NFL's headquarters in New York for the first meeting.
The study showed that the small number of African-Americans who had become NFL head coaches had records in the regular season and playoffs that were better than most white NFL coaches. Along with the study came the implication that if changes were not forthcoming, Mehri and Cochran were ready to take legal action.
The pace subsequently quickened in key team positions after the NFL adopted the "Rooney Rule," which was similar to MLB's policy for hiring managers and GMs. It gave the commissioner more clout. Former players formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance to add pressure and create more momentum for change. I have no doubt that the efforts of the commissioner's office, as well as the diversity groups appointed by the NFL in the past four years, have brought about a direct change. The "Rooney Rule," which was named after Steelers' owner Dan Rooney, who heads the league's diversity committee, has helped to increase the number of African-American head coaches in the NFL from three to seven this season.
In addition to the head coaching ranks, other examples of progress from the Report Card:
• African-American general managers increased from two in 2003 to four in 2005. As of July 2006, with the hiring of Rick Smith by the Houston Texans, the NFL reached a record high of five African-American general managers.
• The 2005 season saw a record percentage of people of color in assistant coaching positions in the NFL. In the 2005 season, there were 162 assistant coaches of color, or 34 percent. This was up from the previous record of 33 percent in the last Report Card.
However, not all is rosy regarding race at the team level. There was a higher percentage of people of color in team professional positions in 1993 (12 percent) than in 2005 (11 percent). Both years were short of the NFL's record for team professional positions of 16 percent in 1999. People of color hold 14 percent of the team senior administrative positions, the same as in 1999 and lower than the high of 17 percent in 2003.
The NFL is the only league that does not participate in the Racial and Gender Report Card, either by providing data or in reviewing and corroborating data we submit to each league prior to publication to achieve the most accurate analysis. Without league participation, the Institute was left with less sufficient data on gender and, therefore, we did not issue a grade on gender. The record of NFL teams regarding the hiring of women remained poor, especially compared to the significant progress on race, although the percentage of women did increase slightly in the categories of team vice presidents and professional administration. It decreased slightly in team senior administration positions. Overall, it was close to the results in the 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card.
Last year the NFL circulated a memo, urging teams to interview at least one person of color for all front-office vacancies. The "Rooney Rule" attaches a financial penalty when a team fails to include a person of color in its candidate pool for head coaching vacancies. This memo does not carry the same weight. Such a penalty would give the commissioner even more leverage with teams.
I tip my hat to Paul Tagliabue as he leaves the NFL not only in remarkable fiscal shape but also with a new model on racial hiring practices for Roger Goodell to use in his tenure as commissioner.
Richard Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity and ethics in sport.