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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

NFL’s New Diversity Effort Is All About Face Time

  • More than 30 GM prospects attended NFL’s Front Office Accelerator at league meetings last week.
  • Steelers owner Art Rooney II said he's hopeful accelerator initiatives "will bear fruit."
Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II and head coach Mike Tomlin talking on field
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

IRVING, Texas — Jacqueline Davidson said in her role as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers senior director of football research, she interacts with her team’s ownership “all the time.”

Over the two days at a swanky suburban Dallas hotel last week, Davidson and 31 general manager prospects attended the NFL’s Front Office Accelerator summit — a program created to aid in the efforts to diversify top management at the team level. 

“You can’t put a value on being able to see and network with owner, and getting exposure that we would not have in our respective roles,” Davidson said. “You know with a salary cap and an analysis background, I network with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Obviously, I don’t get the opportunity to network with a lot of the ownership around the league.” 

The general manager prospects from diverse backgrounds attended sessions led by academics, business leaders, and veteran operations staff to help give them. The focus, however, is allowing the prospects to interact with those responsible for coaching and front-office hiring.

“It is very rare that we get the interaction face-to-face with owners outside of our club,” said San Francisco 49ers Director of Player Personnel Ran Carthon. “I think it’s beneficial for us to be seen as humans as opposed to just scouts or cap people, to show our more personable side outside of a normal football setting.”

In the NFL’s last diversity report released in February, there were 47 open head coach, GM, and coordinator positions between the prior two Super Bowls. Fifteen available jobs (32%) went to people of color. That is a slight drop from the 2021 report of 37%. However, it was much better than the 2015 report, where only 18% of those open positions went to non-white candidates.

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New Orleans Saints VP of Football Administration Khai Harley was his team’s representative and likely among the most likely in the group who will draw interest when GMs begin to get called this offseason. 

“We just want ownership to do the same things that we’re doing, or we should be doing: looking for the best candidates available,” Harley said. 

Harley, a salary cap wizard, also participated in the first Front Office Accelerator in May. 

“That was the start, and now it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s look at some of the things that went well,” Harley said.  “Let’s look at some of the things that maybe didn’t go as well as we would like, and how do we tweak and fine tune and highlight people for open opportunities.’”

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A Networking Opportunity

The creation of the accelerator programs for coaches and front office personnel comes after years of pushing by groups like the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who had officials at the accelerator last week. 

While not the reason stated by league officials, the renewed efforts toward diversity have come in the months after the former Miami Dolphins head coach filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the league in February. 

Flores, now an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was joined in the still-pending lawsuit by interim Carolina Panthers Steve Wilks and Ray Horton, a veteran NFL assistant coach. 

Teams were sent a memo from the league office on Dec. 2 that laid out best practices — although franchises aren’t obligated to follow them — in a guidebook ahead of the next round of hiring this offseason. 

The league also reminded teams of the expanded Rooney Rule, which now includes women. Teams must interview at least two external people of color or women candidates for open head coaching positions. For coordinator and senior front office positions, at least one diverse candidate has to be interviewed. 

Steelers owner Art Rooney II’s late father, Dan, spearheaded the first interview requirement two decades ago when he was the head of the diversity committee. Despite its best intentions, the rule hasn’t diversified the head coach workforce.  

“I think it will bear fruit in terms of hires down the road,” Rooney said of the league’s accelerator programs. 

The rub: While some teams provided multiple candidates, not all 32 teams had prospects from their teams attend  — including the Dallas Cowboys, whose headquarters are located 24 miles from where the NFL owners’ meetings took place.

The other absences were just as head scratching.

  • Baltimore Ravens: A team that hired Ozzie Newsome as the first Black GM over two decades ago. 
  • Jacksonville Jaguars: Owned by Shahid Khan, the only non-white majority owner in the NFL. 
  • Seattle Seahawks: A franchise owned by Jody Allen, one of five female controlling owners in the league. 

The Cowboys participated in the first accelerator, but sending front office staff during the NFL season is something Rooney said is “not always possible” given the timing.

“I think all of the teams understand this is a priority for the league at this point,” Rooney said. “Look, it’s not always possible to get somebody free to come [to the accelerator]. So, I think over time, all the clubs are gonna be participating. In the fact that we had a few that didn’t have a candidate here last time, I’m not gonna lose any sleep over that right now.”

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