NFL still has a ways to go

Originally Published: February 24, 2006
By Eric Allen | ESPN Insider

When I came into the league in 1988 I noticed there weren't many conversations about the history of the NFL in terms of race, especially in comparison to Major League Baseball. I wanted to see where my sport had its barrier breaking time so I made it a point to investigate. Interestingly enough I found that professional football was integrated by Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode a year before baseball in 1946.

Since then minorities have come a long way in the NFL, but still have far to go. The NFL is a far way from when pioneers like Fritz Pollard started all African-American traveling teams to play white all-star teams to prove African-Americans belonged in the game. It's come a long way since AFL players felt the need to boycott their all-star game in 1965 unless the venue was changed to Houston from New Orleans, where they were being treated like second class citizens. It's been a long time since African-Americans weren't looked at as qualified candidates to be quarterbacks and coaches. Now minority coaches aren't a novelty. Now you can see children and adults of any color wearing a jersey of any player of any color or background.

But that doesn't mean that the progress in the league is over. In fact it should be far from over. The NFL has done a fine job in recent years of trying to level the playing field for minority participation in the coaching ranks. But more can be done and it's time the number of minorities increases in the general manager positions around the league.

There are far too many times when minority coaching applicants receive short shrift in the selection process because an organization has its candidate picked out from the get-go. In that case the applicant doesn't get a real interview because he has no shot at the job. That can affect candidates for other job interviews because they don't know whether their interviews really mean anything or whether it's just a dog and pony show. Imagine if you went into an interview with a potential boss and realized during or after the interview that you never had a chance at the job because the organization already had a person in mind, but had to interview you or risk being penalized. That would weigh on your mind every time you had a future interview and it wouldn't be fair.

As progressive as the NFL has tried to be in terms of leveling the field, there still seems to be a gap between the thinking of the league and the individual ownerships. Why else aren't more minorities given the opportunity to make the jump from being a player or a young assistant coach to becoming a head coach or a general manager. Why should it take Jerry Gray and Mike Singletary longer to get a job than Jon Gruden, Jim Mora, Jr., Jack Del Rio or Eric Mangini. This isn't a knock on the skills of any of those coaches, but why are they given a chance so early when they haven't made as much of a mark on the NFL as other candidates. I loved playing for Gruden, Mora and Del Rio and regard them as great coaches and good men, but why did they receive their chance to coach so early, while Marvin Lewis, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith had to wait so long? Why was Willie Shaw essentially run out of the league after he turned around the Oakland Raiders defense?

No disrespect to the Detroit Lions, but it's galling to think that not only does Matt Millen still have a job despite no track record of success, but to then realize that he made the transition from the broadcasting booth with no prior experience. Are there honestly no qualified minority candidates out there who could take this position?

Something tells me there are.

Part of the problem is that current and former players don't take a stronger stand in terms of speaking out against the inequities of the system until they are personally faced with them. All players have an obligation to say something about the inadequacies of the league in terms of certain decision making by the owners. I realize that it's difficult for a player to take a stand in the league when there are people tugging at him asking him to be a vanilla person who appeals to all. Too often guys decide to take the corporate approach because it's the straightest line to endorsements. Sadly it's more profitable to be known for a touchdown dance than it is to be known as someone who isn't afraid to speak out on issues pertinent to today's society in and out of the NFL.

There are no Jim Browns in today's NFL. More and more players have decided that their own pocketbooks are more important than is the well-being of other minorities who are going to continue to find the going tough as they try to move up into the coaching ranks and into general manager positions. I don't hold myself above the level of blame in this situation because I also fell short in addressing the shortcomings of the NFL while I was a player. That's something that I regret and hope to rectify.

Another part of the problem is that some candidates for these jobs are being selected based more on who they know than on what they know. Too often guys are hired because they worked well with the GM at a previous time. That's no way to hire someone and it puts minorities at a disadvantage because they don't have these long standing relationships with people in upper management.

In a perfect world the NFL would be a meritocracy, but it isn't and until there are more minorities in a position to make decisions the NFL has to keep regulating the situation. The league also has to find new more innovative ways to do so other than enforcing penalties. Enforcing penalties on ownership for not interviewing minorities only fuels the public perception that every minority interview is one set up merely to avoid penalties. That's incredibly unfair to the applicants and I believe it places the onus on the league to find new ways to make sure of a level playing field.

While it's easier said than done to try to find ways to push the reset button on decades of wrongs, the NFL has come a long way but must keep progressing for the playing field to be completely level.

Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders. He's a regular contributor to Insider.

Eric Allen

NFL studio analyst
Eric Allen, a 14-year NFL veteran and was one of the NFL's premier defensive backs, joined ESPN in August 2002 as an NFL studio analyst. His primary role is providing analysis for ESPNEWS' Monday Quarterback.