NFL Diversity Hiring Plan Draws Warning of Unintended Consequences

National Football League owners on Tuesday passed a new diversity initiative to reward teams for developing minority coaches and front-office executives, a creative approach to what’s becoming one of its more public concerns.

The plan, which needs approval from the union, would give a pair of late-third round draft picks to any team that has candidates from underrepresented backgrounds hired away to become head coaches or GMs elsewhere. Experts, however, warn that in the NFL’s hyper-competitive environment, the new rules may have the unintended consequence of adding a perceived cost to hiring: the benefit given to the other team.

“If I had my old microeconomics text book I could give you the specific terminology that captures this phenomena: Does your reward in signing this new head coach or GM offset the economic benefit you perceive another team receiving because of your action?” said Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sports Institute at Arizona State University and author of In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. “It’s a very roundabout action against self-interest if you play out the whole chess match.”

In other words, would the Miami Dolphins be as willing to hire a New England Patriots assistant as their next head coach, as they did last year with Brian Flores, if it also meant their division rival would receive a pair of third-round picks from the NFL?

“I am always wary of financial incentives related to inclusive hiring practices because they fail to adequately address the systemic motivations for the issue in the first place,” said Courtney Cox, a professor of race and sports at the University of Oregon. “This initiative’s attempt at minority retention and leadership ultimately rewards rivals, which isn’t going to motivate anyone long-term.”

Asked about the concern, a league spokesman said the value of these hires “would outweigh another team getting comp picks for two seasons.”

The NFL has spent decades trying to improve the diversity of its coaching and executive ranks. The well-known Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates, is one of a handful of initiatives the league has tried. The NFL entered this 2020 season with four non-white head coaches, tied for its lowest total since 2003. A group that grades leagues on their diversity hiring recently gave the NFL its lowest score in the past 15 years.

Recommended unanimously by the league’s Workplace Diversity Committee and approved Tuesday by the full group of owners, Resolution JC-2A states that if a “minority” assistant coach or front office employee is hired elsewhere to be a head coach or GM, the NFL will grant two compensatory third-round picks to the team that is losing those employees. It’s a novel approach by the league, one clearly aimed at rewarding teams that give opportunities earlier in someone’s career.

“This is an important initiative for the NFL,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters after the owners voted. “Our effort here is to continue to look at everything we are doing to try to improve our policies, our procedures, to encourage and to get the results we want, which is more diversity and inclusion within our ranks.”

Compensatory picks, slotted into the end of a round, are generally given out by the NFL for competitive reasons, like losing a star in free agency. Current NFL players that were compensatory picks include Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott and New York Giants linebacker Blake Martinez, who currently leads the NFL in tackles.

Players drafted in the third-round compensatory slots last year all signed contracts worth a shade under $4.5 million, meaning the players drafted with those two picks could be worth around $9 million in contracts. It’s hard to compare that directly to the salary for a first-time GM or head coach, but the blending of off-field hiring practices and on-field player decisions means the NFLPA will need to vote on the resolution.

“We have always advocated for greater diversity in the ranks of management, but this specific resolution requires collective-bargaining because it impacts the draft,” a union spokesman said. Exact timing on that process is unclear.

Outside of the specifics of this plan, experts have broader concerns. Cox, the Oregon professor, said she objects to the idea that people of color need to be “developed” professionally in a way different from white candidates. Ben Carrington, a professor at USC’s journalism school and author of Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora, said the league needs to address deeper issues first.

“It all feels odd to me; teams should be doing this anyway,” Carrington said. “It’s a kind of admission that those in charge lack the will to change, so we need an imposed market mechanism to achieve an anti-racist result, when surely the culture of the NFL teams and senior management is what needs to change first?”

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