Down to one.
The Oakland Raiders fired Reggie McKenzie on Monday, which will leave Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins as the NFL’s lone African-American general manager once Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens steps down, as long planned, from his position at the end of the season. For a league with 32 teams that continues to emphasize its supposed commitment to diversity in management, that’s an awful look.
The 2016 NFL executive of the year, McKenzie joined the list of top black decision-makers recently purged from professional sports’ most successful league. At the conclusion of the 2016 season, the NFL had seven black general managers. Before last season, the Buffalo Bills fired Doug Whaley. Then late in 2017, the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns fired Jerry Reese and Sashi Brown, respectively, within the same week.
Former Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith is on a one-year sabbatical as his wife fights cancer and is not expected to return to the team. And in Miami, Grier, who directs the team’s draft and oversees the personnel staff, reports to Mike Tannenbaum, Dolphins executive vice president of football operations.
The fact is, the NFL is an overwhelmingly African-American league, in which almost 70 percent of the players are black. The league’s message about it being all-in on inclusion is seriously undercut by, well, the facts. McKenzie’s departure from the Raiders merely provides the latest reminder.
McKenzie inherited a hot mess in 2012, joining a franchise long in a state of disrepair. The Raiders hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2002. They had a weak roster and an awful salary cap situation. McKenzie jump-started a turnaround by working through the cap problems and absolutely nailing the 2014 draft, selecting linebacker Khalil Mack fifth overall and getting quarterback Derek Carr with the fourth pick of the second round. Quickly, Mack, the Associated Press 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, and Carr became Pro Bowl franchise pillars. In 2016, the Raiders went 12-4 and finally ended their postseason drought at 13 seasons. But the Raiders slipped to 6-10 last season.
Once owner Mark Davis persuaded former head coach Jon Gruden to return to the franchise – Gruden reportedly received a 10-year, $100 million contract that includes the final say in personnel matters – the writing was on the wall that McKenzie would be pushed toward the door.
In Gruden’s first season in control, the Raiders are 3-10 and last in the AFC West. The team has been roundly criticized for trading Mack, who’s having another stellar season with the Chicago Bears, and wide receiver Amari Cooper, who has helped fuel the once-struggling Dallas Cowboys’ rise to the top of the NFC East. Those moves wouldn’t have happened without Gruden’s approval.
Despite the Raiders’ downturn the past two seasons, McKenzie displayed the chops to build a winning team, said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
“Reggie McKenzie has proven his ability in this league,” Wooten, who leads the group of minority coaches, front-office officials and scouts named after the NFL’s first African-American coach, said in a phone interview.
“People forget that the Raiders had serious cap problems when he took over and they didn’t have any players. Just look at what he did for them. That’s why I believe Reggie will have a job back in the NFL soon. When people know what you can do in this league, just like they’re always looking for good players, they’re also always looking for good talent evaluators. Reggie is one of the top guys in that area.”
For black player-personnel executives, however, it has proven to be a hard climb to the top rung of football operations – and an even more difficult task to remain there.
Reese, the longtime New York Giants general manager, had a key role in helping the team win two Super Bowl championships. He was fired a season after the Giants went 11-5 and reached the playoffs. To be sure, Reese made mistakes. The team experienced turmoil on his watch. That established, African-American coaches and scouts argue that black general managers still aren’t given as much leeway to prove their worth as their white counterparts. Many point to Bruce Allen as the classic example of the NFL’s double standard.
Allen, now Washington’s team president, joined the franchise in 2009 as general manager. Although he initially did not have the final say over the roster, Allen was actively involved in charting the organization’s course. Following the 2013 season, Allen assumed complete control of the team’s football operation. His disastrous tenure has been marked by one dunderheaded move after another, including the roundly lambasted decision to claim linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers from the San Francisco 49ers three days after he was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence. Since Washington owner Daniel Snyder hired Allen, the team is 58-82-1.
The Rooney Rule was supposed to help level the field. In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule – named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee – mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs. This season, though, diversity has taken multiple blows – with likely more to come.
At the start of the 2017 season, there were eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 as the most the NFL has had in any season, including seven African-Americans. On Oct. 29, the Cleveland Browns fired former head coach Hue Jackson. Todd Bowles of the New York Jets, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals and Vance Joseph of the Denver Broncos lead struggling teams. They all could be looking for work soon. And although Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals is in his first season, the team’s 3-10 mark seemingly puts him on shaky ground as well.
Despite McKenzie’s departure from Oakland and the potential bleak outlook for several African-American head coaches, Wooten, who guides the group that helps oversee compliance of the Rooney Rules, remains steadfast in his belief that the only way to effect positive change is to keep on pushing.
“We have to keep making sure we’re showcasing the right people, which we do through the Rooney Rule,” Wooten said. “You look back over the last 15, 16 years, clearly we’ve seen people get opportunities and prove they can do the job. We always say that we just have to keep working with this [rule] to help the NFL do what’s right.”
Yet, with the NFL soon to have only one African-American general manager and no African-American executives in charge of running a football operation, it seems owners are more interested in what’s white.
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