Trace a finger along the NFL’s historical timeline, and its long and complicated relationship with race becomes obvious.
- 1934: League owners impose an informal ban on African American players that lasts for 12 years.
- 1978: After leading Washington to a Pac-8 title and being named the Most Valuable Player in a Rose Bowl upset of Michigan, quarterback Warren Moon is unclaimed in the league’s 12-round draft and winds up playing in Canada.
- 2002: The late Johnnie Cochran threatens to sue the league for discriminatory hiring practices in regard to routinely passing over Black candidates for head-coaching positions. As a result, in 2003, the NFL implements the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head coach (it was later expanded to include openings at general manager and other key roles).
- 2017: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color, is unable to find a job despite coming off a season in which he threw 16 touchdown passes against just four interceptions.
- 2019: After tying an all-time high of seven Black head coaches in 2017, the trend reverses, with the number matching the post-Rooney Rule low of three, where it stands today.
And yet …
As bad as that history is, the relationship took a new and disturbing turn last week when Eugene Chung, a former NFL player and assistant coach of Korean descent, said an interviewer told him earlier this year he was “not the right minority” for a coaching position.
“It was absolutely mind-blowing to me that, in 2021, something like that is actually a narrative,” Chung told The Boston Globe. “I’m not sitting here bashing the league at all, because there are great mentors and there are great coaches that embrace the difference. It’s just when the Asians don’t fit the narrative, that’s where my stomach churns a little bit.”
Chung did not name the person or team, nor did he disclose the precise position he was seeking. He was not on the league’s internal list of candidates that teams requested to interview for head-coaching jobs this offseason, but that is not to say he did not speak with a club. Teams would not have needed to request permission to talk to him because he was not under contract to anyone.
Chung’s allegation, if true, is troublesome not only because it goes against the league’s stated values and workplace policies of hiring and promoting based on merit, but also because it suggests the existence of a culture of pitting one minority group against another.
Racism in and of itself is despicable, but there is something particularly galling about pitting minority groups against each other. Beyond disrespecting and demeaning the minority groups in question, it distracts from where the real focus should be: on the people in power who refuse to hire and promote those who do not look like them.
The NFL has strongly denounced such conduct, but it begs the question of just what type of culture exists within the league if someone feels comfortable enough to say such a thing out loud, let alone to think it. This is supposed to be the age of enlightenment following the murder of George Floyd last summer. We’ve had PSAs, hashtags and team- and league-sanctioned statements extolling the importance of racial equity and social justice. And it was against that backdrop that Chung’s interviewer — presumably a team representative involved in the hiring process — made all those efforts feel performative.
“[Pitting minority groups against each other] is harmful to organizational culture in terms of identifying who can actually make it to the top, who can occupy those important decision-making seats within organizations, and it sets a tone for the broader population within organizations that if they are in fact not a part of the majority that they are not valuable and that they do not have a growth trajectory,” said Nzinga Shaw, global chief inclusion and diversity officer at Marsh McLennan, a professional services firm in the areas of risk, strategy and people.
Shaw, an expert in the diversity and inclusion (or D&I) space, was speaking in general and not specifically about Chung’s allegation, which she was initially unaware of. But as a matter of workplace best practices, she said it can be detrimental to have a culture in which minority groups are pitted against each other.
“I’ve never heard of that happening in the workplace, personally, but if that were to happen in a workplace where I happen to be, I would No. 1 engage with senior leaders around the topic immediately,” she said. “I would also engage human resources into doing an investigation to understand how those comments materialized and figure out what would be the repercussions of using language like that in the workplace.”
The league has said it will look into the matter, and NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said Wednesday that he has talked with Chung, and that the allegation was brought up at that day’s virtual meeting between owners. “When you hear it, it just tells us how much work we still have to do, how much education that’s still needed for all of us,” Vincent said. Chief administrative officer Dasha Smith said: “It’s obviously disturbing, it’s not at all in line with our values and what we stand for here at the NFL, and we are absolutely looking into the matter and we will address it appropriately.”
But the next step could get tricky for the NFL. If the remark was made during an interview for a head-coaching position, it’s possible an owner was present. And if an owner were present, will the league disclose as much? There is reason to question it. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has asserted owners and league officials will be held to a higher standard under the personal conduct policy. But high-profile incidents involving owners aren’t always handled by the league in a transparent manner.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft had misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution charges dropped against him last year after a state appeals court ruled the footage of him from a police-installed video camera inside a South Florida spa had been obtained using unconstitutional methods and would be inadmissible at trial. The league began looking into the situation some two years ago, and we have yet to hear whether discipline was imposed on the powerful owner; a league official did not respond when asked if the Kraft case had concluded.
Jets owner Woody Johnson reportedly made racist and sexist remarks to employees while serving as the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., and a report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General last year stated that Johnson “sometimes made inappropriate or insensitive comments on topics generally considered Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)-sensitive, such as religion, sex, or color.” For his part, Johnson disputed the findings, according to the OIG report, which included this statement by him: “If I have unintentionally offended anyone in the execution of my duties, I deeply regret that, but I do not accept that I have treated employees with disrespect or discriminated in any way.” Per the management response included in the report, Johnson underwent training and encouraged his staff to also undergo training. (The OIG recommended further review, but the State Department leadership declined.) The league never confirmed if it was investigating the incident and any subsequent discipline has not been made public.
The Washington Football Team has been hit with dozens of accusations of sexual harassment, with some implicating owner Daniel Snyder, but roughly a year later, there still has been no conclusion to the league’s investigation. The WFT inquiry is “ongoing,” according to the league spokesperson.
All of this begs the question of whether there will be full disclosure in the Chung case. Transparency equals credibility, but is the league committed to transparency here? So far, it has not publicly said so. Failure to pull back the curtain will only feed the belief that the league has a double standard when it comes to its business, that it is quick to disclose information when investigating a player, but slow to do the same when it comes to owners.
Will the league do the right thing in this situation? Here’s hoping so, because failing to act appropriately is a slap in the face of not only Chung and other minorities, but also the workplace policies it speaks so strongly about. Even if an owner wasn’t in the room when the comment was made, owners are ultimately accountable for the culture within their teams.
“We can’t pit people against each other if we’re going to be high-functioning, high-performing organizations,” Shaw said, speaking in general about best workplace practices. “We’ve got to figure out how to bring people together.”
One way is by identifying mistakes and correcting them. Transparently.
Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.
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