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How The NFL's Coaching Diversity Problem Traces To College Football Grad Rates06:53
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For the 47th time, both head coaches in the Super Bowl will be white. Derrick Z. Jackson joins Only A Game's Karen Given to explain how the NFL's problem with head coaching diversity is tied to disparate graduation rates of white and black college football players. (David Eulitt/Getty Images)
For the 47th time, both head coaches in the Super Bowl will be white. Derrick Z. Jackson joins Only A Game's Karen Given to explain how the NFL's problem with head coaching diversity is tied to disparate graduation rates of white and black college football players. (David Eulitt/Getty Images)

For the 47th time, the head coaches of both teams in Sunday's Super Bowl are white.

The majority of the players participating are not.

The NFL's problems with diversity in the head coaching ranks have been well-documented, and efforts to fix the issue haven't been successful.

Derrick Z. Jackson, contributor to The Undefeated, sees a connection between this problem and another he's been watching at a lower level of college football.

KG: So how long have you been tracking the graduation rates of college athletes?

DZJ: It's my 24th year. I started it at the Boston Globe and then moved it to The Undefeated.

KG: On average, college football bowl teams graduate more of their white players than they do their African American players. How disparate are those numbers?

DZJ: Well, the four teams that played for the national championship — the average disparity, racial disparity, was 27 percentage points. A lot of teams are only graduating about half or a little more than half of their black players and yet many, many ... of the bowl teams this year graduated 100% of their white players.

The pressure that many reformers have brought to the sport indeed have raised the graduation rates of all the players. The nagging issue — more than a nagging issue — is that the NCAA seems pretty — based on lack of action — it's pretty clear that they're willing to sit with the disparities.

"A lot of teams are only graduating about half or a little more than half of their black players and yet many, many teams of the bowl teams this year graduated 100% of the white players."

Derrick Z. Jackson

KG: You wrote in your article for The Undefeated, "Those disparities alone maintain the halo of white intellectual superiority among athletes. A centrifugal force in the conveyor belt of white coaches running majority black teams." But graduation rates aren't the only numbers you've been looking at. At some schools in your survey, every other African American male student is a scholarship athlete. How does that play into this issue?

DZJ: It's something that has become a pretty central part of my looking at these numbers now. We already know that African American men are stereotyped as being athletes no matter what walk of life we're in.

KG: So you cite a study that mentions this, and it mentions, particularly, an African American student in the Big Ten who often gets mistaken for an athlete. Tell me about him.

DZJ: Yeah. It was from a really good study on stereotypes on college campuses. And the kid said, "I'm 5-foot-5. I weigh 135 pounds. You will be surprised at how many whites walk up to me and congratulate me on a good game on the Monday after a football win."

KG: I can't even imagine what position he could possibly play on a football team.

DZJ: Yeah. You know, the serious part of this, though — there's multiple ways this is serious.

KG: Let's talk about that because there are probably a certain number of people who will listen to this idea and say, "Come on. What's the big deal? I mean, athletes have a great life." So what is wrong with it? Why is it damaging?

DZJ: I think it's very damaging because for those black men, which is the vast majority, who want to go on into other professions, it's just not going to be assumed that they belong in the same zone as a white peer. A 2014 study from Cal Poly Pomona said, "The perception of athleticism is rooted in notions of black men as being hyper masculine. The image of the strong and aggressive athlete has been associated with low-income and working class black men."

To this day we have studies that show that — you name the profession — African Americans with the same resume are rejected. That means the sports stereotypes, to me, play a big piece in that — that all you can be is an athlete. And so to me it's patronizing to say, "Well, athletes are great. They make millions of dollars." But we know what percentage of human beings make millions of dollars as athletes.

KG: So, connect the dots for me. How does what's happening on college campuses directly affect the number of African American coaches we see in the NFL?

DZJ: I think it works like this. One: The graduation rates are disparate, which by definition means the universities expect excellence, in fact perfection, from their white athletes to play and graduate. They don't expect that from black men. That percolates the rest of the student body — white students, who will go on to run businesses and whatever. They will have that stereotype in their heads for the rest of their lives.

So, within just coaching alone, if you have that aura of intellectual inferiority already established, and then you're one of those white athletes who goes on into the coaching ranks, how likely is it that you're going to hire black coaches and bring them on, if, when you were playing with them, it was assumed they're not all going to graduate.

"If you have that aura of intellectual inferiority already established ... how likely is it that you're going to hire black coaches and bring them on?"

Derrick Z. Jackson

So I think it's hugely psychological. There's nothing written in stone. And that is the pernicious part of racism in sports today that leads to the fact that the NFL is now down to a hideous number of black coaches and why baseball struggles and even the NBA is not equal in coaching ranks as they are in players.

KG: So, if this is a systemic problem affecting American men in education, it seems like the Rooney rule — which only says that NFL teams are required to interview a minority candidate for every head coach and GM position — that seems destined to fail. So what can we do?

DZJ: Yeah, the Rooney rule not only doesn't work, teams are making a mockery out of it. I mean, it's very clear. They're hiring young white coaches who no one's ever heard of. And they have to give black coaches that same kind of opportunity.

This segment aired on February 1, 2020.

Related:

Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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