We find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented time of athlete activism as the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) releases its 2017 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card. As I wrote in my ESPN column on the activism in the NFL and across the sports world, I found Sept. 24 to be the most important sports day since Muhammad Ali declared he would not fight in the Vietnam War. The release of the NFL Report Card also comes shortly after the announcement that Colin Kaepernick had broken his silence and was taking legal action against what he claims is collusion among NFL owners to prevent him from getting another job in the league because of his activism. I agree with many others that there is no doubt that Kaepernick deserves to be playing.
On that September day we saw NFL players, coaches and owners kneeling and linking arms in a display of unity in response to President Trump's comments about NFL players protesting the national anthem. Of course, players kneeling, raising their fists and linking arms is about more than defying the President's comments, at its core it is about protesting social injustice and growing the movement started by Kaepernick.
I am proud of the extent of player activism and the number of athletes fighting for social justice throughout our country today. As I have written previously, to make real progress on these issues, it is my hope that all leagues create community forums in each franchise city with players, police, local officials, faith leaders, civil rights leaders and community leaders to openly discuss the issues and to help us understand each other in ways that do not seem to happen now. Unity is the recurring theme, but that unity has to include facing racism head-on. I thought the NFL's announcement that it would support efforts in Congress to reform the criminal justice system was a positive step forward and sign that the players and league can work toward social justice goals together.
The results of the NFL Report Card regarding race may help. The National Football League has achieved an A for racial hiring practices as it has over the last several years. The NFL demonstrated increases in people of color in key roles of general manager and head coach in this year's report in particular. Players should be encouraged that there are more people who look like them in team leadership roles controlling football ops, but it's a number nowhere near the proportion they represent in the league. Of course, there is still room for improvement and consistency in hiring people of color. Based on the level of player activism in the league, I feel heartened about the potential of equality and I am confident that players will continue to push leaders in the NFL to ensure the league is diverse and inclusive, with a focus on head coaches, general managers, coordinators and assistant coaches.
Improvements are also needed not only regarding race, but also in gender hiring. The NFL earned only a C for its gender hiring practices.
This gave the NFL an overall B. The NFL's score for race was 90.7 percent, which is below the 91.1 percent score in 2016. The score for gender was 74 percent, a decrease from 2016's 76 percent score. The overall grade for the NFL decreased from 83.6 percent in 2016 to 82.4 percent in 2017. However, it should be noted that the decreases were largely a result of a new grading scale that better represented America's changing demographics.
In this year's NFL RGRC, the increase of women in management positions in the league office in 2017 reached a milestone. Previously, they held 31.6 percent of the positions. In 2017, the percentage increased to 35.4 percent, which is the highest in the report's history. The number of people of color at or above the vice president level in the league office continued to increase as well. In 2015, there were 21 people of color at or above the VP level. In 2016, there were 24 and in 2017, that number jumped to 31 people of color. Similarly, the number of women at or above the VP level increased from 35 to 45 in 2017.
Perhaps the most positive finding is that at the start of the 2017 season was the eight head coaches of color and six people of color who were general managers or performing the role of GM. There had been considerable concern among NFL officials and advocates for increased head-coaching opportunities for people of color for several years going back to 2014 when there were only five people of color in head-coaching positions. There were six coaches of color in 2015 and 2016. The record was eight coaches of color in 2011, and that number has been reached again.
Despite the encouraging news regarding the number of head coaches of color, there was a slight decline in the percentage of assistant coaches of color which fell from 31.9 percent in 2016 to 31.4 percent in the 2017 season. There was also a drop in the coordinators who are people of color from 14 to 13. This is a concern because assistant coaches and, especially coordinators, are thought of as a direct pipeline to the head coach role. None of these figures come close to reflecting the demographic of the athletes.
Among the most notable hires this year was when Katie Sowers was named an assistant wide receivers coach for the 49ers, making her the second female coach in the NFL. She is also the first openly LGBT coach in NFL history.
The teams are far behind the league office. Numbers for both people of color and women declined in the important category of team senior administrators. The percent of people of color decreased from 18.7 percent in 2016 to 18.2 percent in 2017. Women held 20.0 percent of the senior administrator positions during the 2017 NFL season, which was a decrease of one percentage point from 2016.
People of color and women increased their presence in the category of team professional administrators. The percentage of people of color in team professional administrative positions substantially increased from 22 percent in 2016 to 27.3 percent in 2017. Women in these positions also increased significantly from 33.2 percent in 2016 to 35.9 percent in 2017. This was the highest percent of women in professional administration positions since 2007.
Teams need to follow the example set by the league office, as percentages for women at the team level remain significantly below those at the league level. The NFL continues to make progress on and off the field regarding racial and gender hiring practices and I am sure that athlete activism will help even more as the NFL moves its teams to follow its example as it embraces diversity and inclusion.
Todd Currie and Destini Orr contributed to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program 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.