Does the NFL have an age discrimination issue?

The NFL's chronic struggles with racial bias in the hiring of coaches and General Managers has had, in a strange sort of way, an indirect benefit for the league. It has obscured the question of whether the league also has a bias against older coaches.

Most legally-protected characteristics are hard-wired. From race to gender to sexual orientation to disability, people are who they are. For one protected class, we'll all get there — if we're lucky.

Federal law, along with the laws of most if not all states, prohibit discrimination against age. The protection begins at the age of 40. But, obviously, the temptation to discriminate can get stronger as 40 dips farther and farther into the rearview mirror.

In the 22-plus years we've been operating this specific media outlet, there have been multiple examples of possible ageism. Often, it happens with lower-profile jobs, like scouting. Given the latest hiring cycle for head coaches, it's fair to ask whether there's a bias against older head coaches.

Two of the best coaches in league history were available. Bill Belichick, 71, got one interview. Pete Carroll, 72, got none.

The average age of the eight new head coaches (Mike Macdonald, 36; Jerod Mayo, 37; Brian Callahan, 39; Dave Canales, 42; Antonio Pierce, 45; Raheem Morris, 47; Dan Quinn, 53; Jim Harbaugh, 60) is 44.8. (If Washington had landed 37-year-old Ben Johnson instead of the 53-year-old Quinn, the average would have been 42.8.)

During his invitation-only Super Bowl press conference, Commissioner Roger Goodell got a meandering question that seemed to be addressing the issue of age bias, with some seasoned, experienced head coaches in multiple situations relegated to the role of assistant head coach for a much younger head coach — and with others frozen out of work entirely.

"A lot there," Goodell said in response. "Let me try to make sure I address all that you've asked about. I'd start with the fact that the NFL is incredibly competitive, on and off the field. And it's hard to win in this league. To your point, maybe the greatest coach in NFL history doesn't — isn't coaching this year, but I think what our teams are focused on is the future. How do we continue to bring in the most talented coaches, the most talented general managers, the most talented administrators? Everything about our league continues to increase in its quality and its talent, and our clubs are looking for that in every direction, and I think that's the point about our policies and our processes. The better our processes, the better the outcome. If our clubs continue to go through the process of finding the best people in their positions and understanding that diversity is critical and important for our future and bringing in that best talent, I think we're going to continue to succeed and there will be younger coaches, maybe older coaches. I've had several of the older coaches call me and say, ‘I want to mentor some of these younger coaches.’ I'm a big believer in mentoring. I think all of us need mentoring. I think that's a positive thing ultimately."

A lot there. And, as usual, it's a word salad aimed at running out the clock on a potentially tricky subject and waiting for the next slow-pitch softball.

The better question would have been this: "One of the greatest coaches in NFL history got one interview in the latest cycle. Another Super Bowl-winning coach got no interviews. Both are in their seventies. Coaches like Wade Phillips have said he's no longer in the NFL because of his age. Does the NFL have an ageism issue?"

Surely, Goodell would have found a way to deny it or to downplay it. But that's the real question.

It won't matter until someone sues the NFL for age discrimination. Will that ever happen? Most never thought a race discrimination lawsuit would be filed against the league, given the potential impact of doing so on the plaintiff's prospects in a small industry. (Brian Flores didn't get a single head-coaching interview during the latest cycle, and Steve Wilks not only received no interest but also got fired after his defense held the Chiefs to 19 points in 60 minutes of Super Bowl regulation play.)

All it takes is one person who is able to find a lawyer with experience in such matters and who is willing to file the lawsuit. The discovery process could yield plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the idea that owners (most of whom are deep into the protected class) have a habit of going younger, in part because going young means going cheaper.

It will be for the courts to figure it all out, if a lawsuit is ever filed. For now, it's at least a curiosity. In time, it could become another major problem that the league will eventually have to deal with, one billable hour at a time.