Brandon Boykin's criticism of Chip Kelly is not easy to dismiss.
"Chip Kelly is not comfortable with grown men of our culture," Boykin alleged recently after being traded by the Philadelphia Eagles to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a fifth-round draft pick.
Boykin, who was Philly's most effective cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus, added his voice to a growing chorus of disgruntled former Eagles employees (running back LeSean McCoy, childish wide receiver DeSean Jackson and assistant Tra Thomas) suggesting that Kelly has a problem relating to black players.
There's now smoke smoldering around Kelly. Boykin has a solid reputation on and off the field. He's married to a biracial woman, which leads me to believe he has likely given race/culture more thought and discussion than the average person. He's a journalism major and weighs his words carefully. His criticism of Kelly is measured and pointed, free of vitriol and animus. Most importantly, we can look for clues to assess the legitimacy of Boykin's claim beyond counting the number of black players on Philly's roster.
If Kelly is indeed uncomfortable with, as Boykin said, grown men of our culture, that discomfort would reveal itself in the grown men he chooses to work most closely with on a day-to-day basis -- the high-priced coaching staff he constructed.
The Eagles' official website lists 23 assistant coaches for Kelly. Six of those assistants are black. That's 26 percent. Not an indefensible number. But here's what's interesting: None of Kelly's assistant coaches of color have a significant position of authority. Five of the coaches are assistant position coaches. They're assistants to an assistant.
Greg Austin is the assistant offensive line coach. Quadrian Banks is an assistant strength and conditioning coach. Michael Clay is the assistant special teams coach. Matt Harper is the assistant defensive backs coach. Brian Smith is the assistant linebackers coach.
Kelly's most powerful black assistant coach is running backs coach Duce Staley, a popular former Eagles player who was a quality-control assistant under Andy Reid and was promoted to position coach by Kelly in 2013. Staley has little coaching experience, and therefore he probably has a muted voice inside the coaching room.
The coaches at the bottom end of Kelly's assistant staff -- the coaches with the least amount of power and influence -- are overwhelmingly young and black. When Kelly wants a grown coach's opinion about what to do with his roster, he turns to a group of peers who look, and perhaps think, like he does.
Let me offer some transparency: The coach I respect more than any other in football is a member of Kelly's staff. Philly inside linebackers coach Rick Minter was defensive coordinator at Ball State University when I played there in the 1980s. Minter is a football genius. We've stayed in touch the past 25 years. I have not spoken to Minter about the criticism leveled at Kelly. I did express words of support to Minter about the way Kelly handled the Riley Cooper situation in 2013.
I thought it was important that the Eagles stick by Cooper in the aftermath of his reprehensible, drunken behavior at a country music concert. Young people say and do intolerant things, especially when they've been drinking. You can't discard them. You have to give them a chance to learn and evolve.
I mention the Cooper incident and my relationship with Minter to demonstrate that I'm inclined to defend Chip Kelly. I understand a football coach's inclination to impose a uniform, militaristic culture. I get that such an inclination could put a coach at odds with highly paid professional athletes looking to express the kind of individuality prevalent within youth culture in general and excessively celebrated within black hip-hop culture in particular.
Rick Minter could attest to my inability to consistently submit to the culture our head coach, Paul Schudel, tried to establish at Ball State. I struggled to buy in. It's in my nature to question authority. When two of my teammates -- one black, one white -- got in a fight at a campus party and Schudel booted the black player, I objected. Rather loudly. I was labeled a locker-room lawyer. I was. At 48, I do not remotely regret standing up for my teammate, but I live with plenty of regrets for not giving more of myself to the team and a football culture designed to help us succeed.
Like most everyone else, my head coach was well-intentioned but flawed. He didn't know what he didn't know. He struggled with self-awareness.
This is likely Chip Kelly's problem.
It's 2015. It's inexcusable to construct an NFL coaching staff this devoid of real diversity and not acknowledge the difference between the cultures of pro and college football. College athletics are driven by culture. Professional sports are driven by talent. Head coaches impose their will on college kids. Many college head coaches get away with hiring a token black assistant or two (Kelly coached at Oregon for four years, and his running back and linebacker coaches were black).You can be a real bully in college. Bobby Knight would not have lasted a single day in the NBA.
It may be that it is this NFL culture that Boykin is referencing. NFL players are not powerless amateurs. They are adults with lives, families and responsibilities. Kelly may be struggling to relate to those facts, not differences of color or race. You can't lead grown men without being transparent, approachable and understanding of what being a pro football player is about.
Chip Kelly won't make it in the NFL over the long haul if he can't develop comfort with grown men of that culture. If you're going to be a no-nonsense hard-ass in the NFL, you have to show an equal amount of love to your players off the field. By all accounts, Kelly is distant from his players. This won't work. Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil were as demanding as any head coaches I've seen. They preferred long, grueling practices. They loved their players. Vermeil and his wife basically adopted many of the Chiefs players.
Kelly has been compared to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. From Romeo Crennel to current Patriots strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash, Belichick has shared power with a diverse group of grown men of our culture.
I have intentionally avoided using the word "racist" in connection to Chip Kelly. I don't know him. The word is inflammatory and misused. We all have biases. Smart, self-aware people recognize this fact and try to surround themselves with a diverse group of people capable of challenging their biases, particularly when they're operating in a profession that requires working with people from diverse backgrounds.
Philly owner Jeff Lurie deserves some blame here. It's irresponsible for Lurie to allow Kelly to build a coaching staff this devoid of true diversity. I searched all 32 NFL coaching staffs and found no other staff comparable to Philly's. Teams either had a head coach, assistant/associate head coach, an offensive/defensive/special teams coordinator and/or two or more position coaches of color. The Broncos, Dolphins and Saints stuck out because they had just two black position coaches (twice as many as the Eagles).
Discomfort fertilizes growth. The discussion engulfing Chip Kelly at the moment can help him evolve.