Commentary: Progress in one area…regression in another

PITTSBURGH STEELERS HEAD COACH MIKE TOMLIN is the only Black head coach in the NFL right now, after the Miami Dolphins fired Brian Flores, and the Houston Texans fired David Culley.

Black head referees in NFL are increasing, while Black head coaches are decreasing


The National Football League has pretty much taken over. The marketing is outstanding, the games are full of drama (except that butt-kicking the Kansas City Chiefs gave our Steelers on Sunday night, Jan. 16, 42-21), ratings are through the roof, and we’re sure to have our eyes glued to the TV in the coming weekends up until Super Bowl LVI (56) in Los Angeles, Feb. 13.

The NFL, as a company, has loosened up its Texas-style conservatism, too. If you haven’t heard, this year’s Super Bowl halftime show will feature well-known African American musical acts like Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Kendrick Lamar. Rapper 2 Chainz is all over commercials right now promoting the NFL postseason. And of course, you can dance again in the NFL, after the league tried to stop players from celebrating after touchdowns.

Watching the Super Wild Card games this past weekend, I noticed that Jerome Boger and Shawn Smith were head referees (the ones with the white hat that make the calls on TV and are leaders of the officiating crews) for two of the six games. They are both Black. Then I noticed the head coaches of all 12 teams who played this past weekend, and only one was Black — our own Mike Tomlin.



ADRIAN HILL is one of the NFL’s four Black head referees. The four Black head referees are the most the NFL has ever had at one time.

Let’s take a deeper dive into this. The NFL actually has four Black head referees (Adrian Hill, Ron Tolbert), which means that nearly 25 percent (4 of 17) of the league’s head referees are now Black. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, because for a minute there, I thought Johnny Grier and Mike Carey would have to referee forever (they were the league’s first two Black head referees).

The NFL even had its first all-Black officiating crew, Nov. 23, 2020, on a Monday Night, for all to see. And this past September, Maia Chaka became the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game, working as a line judge for a New York Jets/Carolina Panthers contest. She was the third woman in NFL officiating history, following two White women, Shannon Eastin (2012) and Sarah Thomas (2015).

MAIA CHAKA made history as the NFL’s first Black female referee, working as line judge during a game in September 2021.

So, as things are heading in the right direction as far as referees are concerned, things are going backwards in the NFL’s Black head coach count. Two Black head coaches were fired recently, one almost shockingly. Brian Flores’ Miami Dolphins team won 8 of their final 9 games to finish 9-8, all with an often-injured starting quarterback; but he was dismissed. David Culley was the head coach of the Houston Texans, who never, ever had its starting quarterback, DeShaun Watson, this season due to legal troubles. Still, in 2021, his first year as head coach, the team played hard and won four games. He was shown the door, too.

And as for Tomlin, the man only has had 15 straight seasons without a losing season, has won a Super Bowl and been to another, kept the Steelers respectable two years ago when Ben Roethlisberger was injured for the season, and got the Steelers to the playoffs this season with Roethlisberger literally on his last leg. Yet, phones ring off the hook around Western Pa. from fans wanting Tomlin fired, saying he’s not a good coach, or that they’ve had enough of the mediocrity.

Thankfully, the Rooneys are not moved by the haters, and Tomlin’s job is secure in Pittsburgh.

JEROME BOGER is one of the NFL’s four Black head referees. Boger worked the Wild Card game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday, Jan. 15.

But what about the other owners of NFL teams across America, all of whom are White except Jacksonville’s Pakistan-American owner Shad Khan, who have, for the most part, a White man manning the sidelines for their team? Why have they been allowed to create such a dearth of Black head coaches in the NFL, even if there wasn’t “pre-meditated intent” to do so?

Simple. The NFL’s White commissioner, Roger Goodell, works for the White owners. Not the other way around. The owners rule their own roost — if they want to fire a Black head coach after one season, or get rid of a Black coach who just had a winning record, they can do it, and Goodell can’t do a thing about it.

And the fans can’t (and won’t) do anything about it, either. Not surprisingly, every NFL team’s fan base is majority-White (yes, that includes the Atlanta Falcons). I’m not saying there is prejudice within a team’s fan base, but you won’t be seeing any “Black Head Coaches Matter” rallies being attended by a stadium full of White fans.

It’s not just me saying this. Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, recently told the Washington Post that teams have a “double standard” when judging the performance of Black head coaches.

Both the NFL and National Basketball Association (NBA) have majority-Black players. But it’s the NBA that has a whopping 12 Black head coaches right now out of 30 teams (40 percent). Before this 2021-22 season began, six new Black head coaches were hired in the NBA.

The NFL currently has eight head coaching vacancies, though two of them have an interim coach (Las Vegas Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars), though the Jaguars are almost certain to hire a brand new head coach. That leaves the Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Houston Texans with time to fully evaluate head coaching candidates, and hire who they think will lead them to football’s promised land starting next season.

The question is, will they hire the best candidate for the job, even if he’s Black?

(Rob Taylor Jr. is the managing editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier.)







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