ORLANDO -- The NFL is getting high marks for its diverse hiring practices.
Despite labor unrest this year, the NFL showed an increase of 30 percent in the number of diverse employees in executive-level jobs, according to a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Richard Lapchick, primary author of the annual report, lauded unprecedented gains at the top executive level within the league office. The report gave the league its second consecutive 'A' grade for racial hiring and its second consecutive 'C' on gender hiring. That gave the NFL a combined grade of 'B'.
Despite the lockout, the study showed the NFL continued to institute several programs aimed at attracting both women and ethnic minorities to leadership positions in its main office and on the team level.
Diverse employees at or above the vice president level increased by 30 percent (from 20 in 2010 to 26 in 2011). The number of female employees increased by 36 percent (11 in 2010 to 15 in 2011).
"I've never seen that much change at the top of an organization, especially in pro sports," Lapchick said. "You usually see it at the entry level and at midlevel positions. It's a really positive sign that changes should come even faster at the league level."
Lapchick also said the addition of Robert Gulliver to the NFL office as the league's first executive vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer was a big step. Gulliver was previously head of human resources for a Wells Fargo division.
"With the labor conflict this summer and questions of economy in general, leagues usually lose focus on diversity, and the NFL didn't do that," Lapchick said.
At the league level, the biggest highlight was having eight head coaches of color at the start of the 2011 season, a record for the NFL.
Only one of the six African-American head coaches in 2010 (San Francisco's Mike Singletary) did not return this season. Two African-American coaches were hired in the offseason (Oakland's Hue Jackson and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier), and the Carolina Panthers hired the league's lone Latino head coach (Ron Rivera).
There is still room for growth, though.
Oakland's Amy Trask is the only female president/CEO of an NFL franchise and there has never been an ethnic minority to serve in that role for any team. There is also yet to be a person of color to hold a majority ownership of a team.
But Lapchick said he thinks the atmosphere does exist for it happen.
"I think what we've seen historically in pro sports is a gradual acceptance with coaches and then general managers," he said. "Ownership is the next tier. Because of the success lately for head coaches and GMs, it's been a breakthrough area. That and the tone set by (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell make it possible that the next ownership group could be made of people of color and women."