Perspective: The NFL’s turn toward inequity resonates eight decades later
Fritz Pollard died waiting for the NFL to change. He lived until he was 92, and that was not long enough. For his last 65 years, he yearned to see another person like him: a Black man, valued and empowered, with the title of head coach.
This football season, The Washington Post is examining the NFL’s decades-long failure to equitably promote Black coaches to top jobs, despite the multibillion-dollar league being fueled by Black players.
In 1921, when the star running back also coached the Akron Pros, professional football seemed ahead of the racist times. It chose not to stay that way. Sixty-eight years elapsed before Art Shell became the second African American to hold the position in 1989. Pollard had succumbed to pneumonia three years earlier, in pioneering solitude, never witnessing that dreamy day when Black minds would be as appreciated as Black athleticism.
“He was waiting for the time the NFL became fully racially unbiased,” said his grandson Stephen Towns, a periodontist who lives in Indianapolis. “He was waiting for leadership that reflected what he saw on the field. But it never happened. It was a real sore spot for him.”
He was Coach Pollard 26 years before Jackie Robinson burst through baseball’s color barrier. Yet more than a century later, the NFL has trusted just 26 Black men to direct its teams, a total inflated by five interim coaches. As the 2022 season unfolds, the sport is enmeshed in a racial discrimination lawsuit and fails to meet the most meager standards for coaching diversity.
The NFL never integrated. Not fully, at least. Not properly. Unlike baseball, there is no clear before and after in its history. It took a winding path of organic integration, segregation and reintegration that can be trimmed to a truth: With its actions, the NFL has always placed conditions on inclusion. Exclusion has always been the point.
It is the tormenting legacy of a league that could have set a standard for inclusion. When Pollard joined what was then called the American Professional Football Association in 1920, he endured racist taunts from the crowds and cheap shots from opponents. But he also was the sport’s highest-paid employee, earning $1,500 per game. For a while, his speed and intelligence prevailed over bigotry. Then the fledgling league, which was struggling to compete for relevance with baseball, boxing, college football and horse racing, aspired to become what it is today: a massive and indomitable force, this nation’s greatest sporting addiction.
The NFL kept out African Americans from 1934 to 1946, a capitulation to White players who complained that the handful of Black players in the league were taking away jobs. After World War II, it reintegrated while reinforcing classic, biased beliefs about who could play where on the field and strengthening a Whites-only leadership sentiment, amplifying old prejudices as its profile rose. Those decisions combined with a tradition of inheritance and nepotism to create a caste system that still plagues progress 101 years after Pollard provided a model for equality and meritocracy.
His obituary began exactly how he feared it would: Frederick Douglass Pollard, the only Black head coach of an NFL team … He was a trailblazer who never saw fresh footprints on his path.
The NFL was ahead and thought it was behind. Now it’s just an aloof giant with one foot in the segregation era and the other in a courtroom.
“Until we understand the past, I don’t think we’re really going to understand the future,” said Hue Jackson, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns. “We’re going to continue to put Band-Aids on it because we don’t really want to have those hard conversations about where all of this started.”
Football historians refer to it as a “gentlemen’s agreement,” peculiar phrasing for a pledge that team owners made to ostracize Black talent. In 1933, two African Americans, Ray Kemp and Joe Lillard, played in the league. There would not be another until 1946, when Black media members and activists criticized the Rams, who had relocated from Cleveland to California and sought to play in publicly funded Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Competition from the All-America Football Conference — which had recruited Paul Brown, a White coach who was a seminal figure in pushing for the sport’s desegregation, to lead its Cleveland franchise — also persuaded NFL owners to abandon the color ban.
It took 16 years for every NFL team to reintegrate, with Washington owner George Preston Marshall finally ending his obstinance in 1962. Even then, doors were merely cracked open across the league. Diversity had to squeeze through, one audacious soul at a time.
The NFL didn’t have a Black official until 1965. Marlin Briscoe, the first Black starting quarterback of pro football’s modern era, didn’t get an opportunity until 1968. The long and arduous journey of minority quarterbacks is well told, but linebacker, center and guard were among the other “thinking positions” once considered unattainable.
Aspiring leaders had it worse. In 1957, Pittsburgh hired Lowell Perry as the first African American assistant coach of the modern era. Twenty years later, when future Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy began his career as a player with the Steelers, there were just 10 Black assistants in the league. In 1985, The Washington Post reported there were just 32. The league lasted without a Black general manager until 2002, when the Baltimore Ravens promoted Ozzie Newsome.
This problem is not old history. It is a morphing reality that floats in the current of societal progress and embeds systemic racism even as times change. Undoubtedly, things are better, but they have never been right. The NFL is rooted in selective integration, a largely unacknowledged sin that rots its soil. Nothing can grow.
“It’s all related to who they were,” said Louis Moore, an author and history professor at Grand Valley State University whose work focuses on the intersection of race, sports and politics. “It’s all related to the owners and their gentlemen’s agreement to keep people out. It still impacts the NFL today because, post-World War II, when football becomes modern and grows in popularity, you have this tradition of what can be integrated and what can’t be. The quarterbacks and coaches are the people who are the face of the league, and the NFL has always been reluctant to let a Black man be that face. It influences every perception about the game.”
LEFT: Washington’s George Preston Marshall, right, was the last NFL owner to integrate his roster. (William J. Smith/AP) RIGHT: Washington’s coaching staff in 1973. (Paul Vathis/AP)
Perhaps if the NFL had more turnover in the ownership ranks, it would be harder for these relics of prejudice to persist. But this is a legacy league, full of families that bought in long ago and established a troubling ethos buttressed by the sport’s economic dominance. The NFL has grown from an afterthought to a 32-team behemoth that prospers from a predominantly Black labor force. It has not progressed, though. The real power exists in a White billionaire clique that keeps getting more exclusive and refuses to evolve. The same kind of person who governed a team in the 1930s still runs the show now, only with a much greater wealth advantage over the average American and an even more cloistered lifestyle.
The descendants of four owners who were part of the Black exile still control franchises. George Halas paid $100 for the Bears in 1920. Tim Mara spent $500 on the Giants in 1925. Charles Bidwill put down $50,000 for the Cardinals in 1932. Art Rooney was charged a $2,500 fee for an expansion Pittsburgh franchise in 1933. Although they made Black players disappear for a dozen years, they left their families with integrated teams now worth billions.
While it is unfair to hold their descendants responsible for decisions made — or unchallenged — decades ago, decency and self-awareness should dictate a stronger commitment to breaking the chain. Instead, these families often minimize or deny the ban, deflecting responsibility for its residual effects.
Of that group, only the Rooneys have been a consistent leader in the minority hiring discussion. Throughout the league, negligence abounds — and coaches suffer the most.
“Minority coaches are frustrated today more so than maybe any time I’ve ever seen,” Dungy said.
When he started coaching, Dungy sported a beard. It was his signature look in the 1980s, along with a mini-Afro, groomed much like a young Mike Tomlin. One day, Dungy ran into George Young, who was the New York Giants’ general manager for nearly two decades.
“If you really want to succeed in coaching, you need to shave your beard,” Dungy recalled Young telling him.
Dungy, in his mid-20s, was confused. Facial hair? Really? Were his hopes and dreams dependent on a razor?
Dungy consulted Dan Rooney, the Steelers’ president.
“Is this true?” he asked. “Am I not representing you the right way?”
LEFT: Tony Dungy became the NFL’s fifth Black head coach when the Buccaneers hired him. (Getty Images) RIGHT: Dungy coached the Bucs for six seasons. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
“No, we want you to be who you are,” he remembered Rooney saying. “Don’t worry about that here with the Steelers.”
Dungy spent 16 years as a defensive assistant and interviewed for several openings before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him in 1996. He was the NFL’s fifth Black head coach. He was 40 and full of gratitude, having outlasted scrutiny of his personal style and mild-mannered demeanor.
He did not yell like a coach. He was not White like a coach. He was unsure whether any owner would embrace him.
“The owners are telling me that I might have to change, and maybe you can’t be as close to the players,” Dungy said. “Maybe you’ve got to come across as more determined or more forceful. Maybe you’ve got to change who you are. And I just really started thinking: ‘Do I do that? Do I come across differently in order to get a job?’ ”
Dungy refused. He kept in mind what Rooney had told him. At the time, he was with Minnesota, not Pittsburgh. But the memory of an organization that truly saw him boosted his conviction. To the detriment of the sport, few organizations seek or appreciate original talent. Rather, they attempt to copy what worked in the past. And the past was so exclusive, so limited, that mythologizing it hindered vision.
In early February, during another deflating hiring cycle, Tomlin was the NFL’s lone Black head coach. It was 2002 again, when Herm Edwards stood alone for a short time. It was 1989 again, when Shell stepped into history. It was 1921 again.
“It’s more disappointment than hurt,” said Towns, 75, who gave an acceptance speech in 2005 for Pollard’s posthumous Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. “You move on, but you always feel that animosity of what could have been. If my grandfather were alive, I think he would be extremely militant and extremely outspoken about the whole hiring process.”
On Feb. 1, Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the league and its teams. He included tanking allegations against Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and details of what he considered a sham interview with the Giants. Two additional coaches, Steve Wilks and Ray Horton, later joined the class-action suit. It should be a cloud hovering over this season, but the league’s popularity makes all skies look sunny. The initial public outcry subsided, and while Flores awaits his day in court, the matter seems to be merely another nuisance for the NFL to crush.
In the league office, Commissioner Roger Goodell has attempted to prioritize diversity with new strategies, revised programming and multiple expansions of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority or female candidates for head coaching and top front-office openings. However, these initiatives amount to a veneer of concern, shielding the serial indifference of the clubs that perpetuate the inequity. There has never been a policy powerful enough to force the owners to change. They won’t allow such accountability. It’s their league, so it’s all about their whims and their comfort level with the candidates.
“No one is going to force them to do anything with their team that they don’t want to do,” said Marc Ross, a former executive with the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. “… Any initiatives or pressure [don’t matter]. It’s what they want to do.”
The NFL is a small, elite world. It doesn’t matter who you are as much as whose you are: which family, which friends, which coaching or general manager tree, which offensive or defensive tradition.
For aspiring Black head coaches, the world is even smaller. Examine the ones who made it, and there are maybe a dozen pathways to recognition. The bulk of them come from the Steelers, the Dungy tree or the Bill Walsh tree. It’s symbolic that late Raiders owner Al Davis — who hired Shell and Tom Flores (the first Latino head coach) as he championed diversity throughout his organization — was often considered a pariah.
“It’s extremely scary to think that we’re in 2022 and these conversations are even happening,” said Brian Levy, a White agent who represents several prominent Black coaches. “That’s, to me, the scariest thing. The results are what they are, and they speak for themselves. You’re walking up a down escalator.”
Anthony Lynn, an assistant head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, did not want his son to follow him into this profession. He tried to steer D’Anton toward Wall Street. But D’Anton loved football too much.
D’Anton was a defensive back who played his final game at 24, much like Dungy. In 2014, he took an internship with the New York Jets, where his father worked. Since then, he has taken assistant jobs with the Buffalo Bills, the Los Angeles Chargers, the Houston Texans and now Baltimore. D’Anton was on his dad’s staff when Anthony was the Chargers’ head coach, but he has moved around on purpose to learn from as many great minds as he can.
“I’ve wanted to coach since I was in the seventh grade,” said D’Anton, now 32 and teaching the Ravens’ safeties. “After playing, I missed being on the field, the energy, the creativity. I just knew I had to get back on the grass.”
The Lynns are one of those cute father-son coaching stories, but they come with an asterisk. Long ago, Anthony prepared D’Anton for the realities of being Black in this business.
“He gave me the twice-as-good-to-get-half-as-much talk when I was 8 years old,” D’Anton said. “Then he gave it to me again as a coach.”
D’Anton remains an idealist as he rises in the profession. He’s earnest. He stays in the moment, giving his best at every stop. In the NFL, many coaches begin with this mentality, only to see their spirit diminished by the pressure to win and the struggle for equal opportunity.
The NFL allowed Black players before its peer leagues, and it reintegrated just before the others opened their doors. But that whiplashing exposed a transactional ruthlessness: Exclusion is the preference. Diversity is a constant negotiation.
D’Anton inherited persistence rather than privilege. It is a requisite trait in the Black struggle for opportunity in America, an injustice that only the powerful can correct with intentional action.
NFL owners wasted a century making Black coaches — and the game itself — wait for better. The obligation falls on them, if they ever recognize it, to see that D’Anton walks a path more stable than the one Anthony has traveled.