NFL players continue fighting for social justice, diversity

The Big Game

Executive director of the NFL Players Association DeMaurice Smith speaks during a press conference ahead of Super Bowl LV, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 in Tampa, Fla. (Perry Knotts via AP)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — NFL players and their union want the league to continue fighting for social justice and they’re still seeking an increase in the number of minority coaches.

After briefly joining NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on stage Thursday to highlight the remarkable collaborative effort it took to reach the Super Bowl on time, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith urged the league to make more progress.

Two minorities were hired for seven head coach openings this offseason. There were three Black head coaches when the Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003 and there are three now, despite several changes to the rule to help promote more opportunities.

“When you look at the recent round of coaches and hirings, the nicest thing I can say is not good,” Smith said.

“I believe that we should move to a system where there is somebody in charge at the National Football League of diversity inclusion. I think you have to increase transparency about what’s going on in the hiring process. I think you have to increase accountability where we actually use metrics to find out how well we’re doing on the field with head coaches, with assistant coaches, with team front offices, with league front offices and with NFL ownership. And I think you have to decrease the barriers that have existed for other people in this business to unionize.”

Smith added the union plans to present a proposal to the league. He cited corporations have been seeking diversity at work for many years.

Goodell said earlier the league is not satisfied with the recent hiring cycle. The New York Jets hired Robert Saleh, the first NFL coach who is known to be Muslim and the son of Lebanese immigrants, and Houston hired David Culley, making him only the league’s third Black head coach hired.

Goodell said having two minority coaches hired this year wasn’t what they expected and not what they expect moving forward. Goodell noted three African-American general managers were hired with more diversity also seen among coordinators.

“I think we all know there’s a problem,” said Sam Acho, a former player and current executive vice president of the NFLPA. “A lot of the players believe if you want to see change, you need to see different faces and different voices that are at the table trying to make some of those changes. Players are doing it but also there needs to be buy-in from ownership, which I think they’re taking steps. But it’s not nearly enough and more needs to be done.”

Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy wrote an open letter to NFL owners about the state of minority hirings.

“Progress to me is if we can get people to the table, if we can get people being viewed and have an opportunity,” Dungy said.

“Bring everybody to the table and let’s talk about who fits our needs and what we’re looking for. If we get that, we’re going to see the progress that we’re looking for.”

Veteran linebacker Wesley Woodyard said players want to know they’ll have opportunities to become coaches or general managers or hold other executive positions in the front office in the future.

“It does frustrate players, especially African American players, because we see ourselves as potential leaders within the NFL community,” Woodyard said.

“We want to inspire ourselves to be head coaches. We want to be GMs. But if you have guys like (Chiefs offensive coordinator) Eric Bieniemy who has been an NFL legend, who’s done great things within his office, within the team that he’s going to back-to-back Super Bowls, that frustrates us as players …. If we don’t create these platforms to put everybody on the same level and let these owners know that players are playing in this league, we give so much to the league and they want to be coaches, too, one day, and I think that’s a system that we have to put in place.”

Players stepped up their activism throughout the season and were encouraged by the league’s actions.

“Moving forward, the collaborative effort of both the players in the league and organizations, I think that should continue using the momentum that we had last year and finally being able to see players putting together initiatives and organizations finally really backing them up authentically, the league really backing them up, doing it not just for making a donation, but through their social platforms as well because that’s huge,” Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas said.

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