The NFL Racial and Gender Report Card

AP Photo/John Raoux

Nearly 100 years ago, on Sept. 17, 1920, a group of men in Canton, Ohio, came together and collaborated to build what is now known as the National Football League. Throughout the league's history, there have been periods of achievement as well as disappointment when it comes to how the league handles racial and gender diversity and inclusion regarding hiring.

The National Football League achieved a B for racial hiring practices and a C+ for gender hiring practice in the 2019 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card, released Wednesday by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. This gave the NFL a combined B- grade.

The NFL's score for racial hiring practices was 82.3%, 6.7 percentage points lower than last year's score of 89.0%. This was the league's lowest point total in the past 15 years. The greatest impact on the decline was how few people of color hold the positions of head coach and general manager. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the percentage of players of color on NFL rosters.

The score for gender hiring practices was 76%, an increase of two percentage points from the score achieved in the 2018 report card. The overall grade for the NFL decreased from 81.6% in 2018 to 79.3% in 2019, resulting in a B-. The overall score is the lowest the league has recorded since 2004.

I am guessing that most fans would be surprised if they looked back at the history of race in the NFL. Unlike with the NBA and MLB, African American players participated in the inaugural NFL season and for years after that. In fact, Fritz Pollard, an African American man, coached in the early years of the league.

Then there was a period of segregation between 1934 and 1946 during which no African American players participated. The NFL reintegrated in 1946, before Major League Baseball in 1947 and the National Basketball Association in 1950. That is a fact rarely noted. The league needs to celebrate this fact just as Major League Baseball does every year on Jackie Robinson Day.

At the end of the 2002 season, head coaches Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings were fired. Dungy had a winning record, and Green had just had his first losing season in 10 years. I joined civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri in threatening a lawsuit unless the NFL moved forward with opportunities for coaches of color. The NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003 requiring teams to interview at least one candidate of color for head-coaching positions. Significantly more coaches of color were hired. In the 2007 Super Bowl, the Dungy-led Colts beat the Bears, coached by Lovie Smith. It was the first time two African American coaches faced each other in the Super Bowl.

After a 2018 season filled with controversy, the NFL found itself at the forefront of issues such as racial inequality within America and athlete activism. Most league officials recognize that diversity and inclusion is a business imperative. One could assume that, as issues like these become commonplace in the NFL and other leagues, teams would recruit and find leadership that could potentially bring a different perspective on how to handle such issues. But they have yet to do so. In addition to having only four coaches of color and two general managers of color in the league, only 12.8% of vice presidents and above at the team level are people of color and 20.7% are women. On a more positive note, people of color held 19.4% of team senior administration positions, setting a record high for that category after a 2.1 percentage point increase from 17.3% in 2018. This included increases from last year for Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.

There have been attempts by the league to improve and become more diverse in how it handles the issues of today's athlete. The NFL Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives outlined in the NFL RGRC are impressive and give hope. The NFL office initiatives continued to include the success of a Women's Interactive Network, as well as a partnership with leading diversity advocacy organizations such as the Fritz Pollard Alliance and the Black Engagement Network. The league office also practices diversity training across the organization, diversity accountabilities for all senior leaders, enhancement of diversity recruitment resources and the creation of talent management programs.

The Rooney Rule was strengthened late in the 2018 season, requiring teams to go outside their own organizations to interview a candidate of color or to interview a candidate who is on the league's career development advisory panel list for head-coaching positions.

Recently, the NFL announced its partnership with Roc Nation, founded by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, to try to build better relationships within communities through music and the NFL's "Inspire Change" initiative. This partnership is a step in the NFL's history toward making a commitment to social change and having important conversations about what its players hold dear. Through this partnership, I hope the NFL looks internally to build a workplace with great diversity and inclusivity. And I think it is imperative that Colin Kaepernick be embraced by the NFL and be part of guiding this new partnership.

Coined by writers at The Undefeated, 2019 is "The Year of the Black Quarterback," as we see this next generation pushing the boundary of position norms within the NFL. At the start of the 2019 season, there were eight African American quarterbacks who started for franchises in the league. The Most Valuable Player, the highest-paid player and the No. 1 draft pick this year all were African American players. This trend is unprecedented, knowing the history of the position, and is a reflection of how the perception of African American quarterbacks has changed.

Unfortunately, just as you see more diverse leaders on the field of play, there is still a deep issue with the lack of representation of head coaches of color. In 2018, the NFL tied its record of eight head coaches of color that was set back at the start of the 2018 season. This year it dropped dramatically, with only four head coaches of color at the start of this season. Mike Tomlin, Anthony Lynn, Brian Flores and Ron Rivera are the only head coaches of color. I hope these numbers will return to the precedent set before and we will continue to see added pressure applied to owners and team presidents alike to diversify their hires. Athlete activism on this issue can make a huge difference.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, shared with me that, "today there is still a dearth of blacks in the elite club of owners. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only two principal owners are people of color -- Shahid Khan of the Jaguars and Kim Pegula of the Buffalo Bills. Ownership is a small club, and a club where owners still tend to admit only people that look like them. By being excluded historically, potential black owners have a far harder time getting in now.

"Today's integrated teams on the field serve as positive examples. Fans cheer for their favorites by the color of their jerseys not the color of their skin. But equality on the field should be paralleled by equality in the management and ownership. It should then take concrete steps to insure that the ownership, management and coaching of NFL teams reflect the diversity of the players on the field and the fans in the stands."

The NFL Race and Gender Report Card gives better context to the NFL's racial and gender hiring practices at the franchise and league levels. Even though the franchise owners are ultimately responsible for the racial and gender hiring practices for each one of their teams, the league office still can set an example on how to better advance diversity and inclusion throughout positions of influence.

The league office has a better grade than its franchises, having 28% representation of people of color for an A-, and over 36% of women represented for a B- grade in the office, as well.

Arne Duncan, former secretary of education and now co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, told me that "not only does there seem to be no commitment to diversity and inclusion at the Federal level, but activist athletes in the NFL have been criticized by the President. It is more important than ever that others provide moral leadership. Professional sports leagues and teams have a unique opportunity to bring people together. The NFL can best celebrate its 100th Anniversary by leading by example and demonstrating both to our country and the world what is possible."

The NFL league office is preparing to announce an executive vice president and chief people officer to strategically lead the various initiatives related to diversity and inclusion across the NFL. This role, previously held by Robert Gulliver, highlights the increased emphasis on continuing the league's progress when it comes to improving diversity and inclusion as a workplace and in all aspects of its business. Additionally, NFL Human Resources has named Samantha Rapoport senior director of diversity and inclusion.

With its better record, strong package of diversity initiatives and important hires, the NFL league office should lead the way for the teams to do better. I look forward to watching what happens next.

Nicholas Mutebi made significant contributions 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 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.