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Opinion: NFL owners' only commitment to racial diversity is standing in its way

Nancy Armour
USA TODAY

The only commitment NFL owners have to racial diversity is to standing in its way. 

How else to explain yet another shameful hiring cycle, when Eric Bieniemy is likely to go without a job – again – while white 30-somethings with half his resume have been handed the keys to the kingdom? When other immensely talented Black coaches like Byron Leftwich and Thomas McGaughey can’t get first, let alone second, interviews but Detroit hires someone whose introductory news conference seemed more like an audition for an Animal House reboot?

The only plausible explanation is the same as it’s always been: NFL owners are happy to employ people of color as players, maybe even as position coaches. But they’ll be damned if they’ll allow a Black or brown man to be the public representative for their prized possession. So they move the goalposts to explain passing over people of color while contorting themselves to justify their hiring of equal or lesser white candidates. 

It’s possible that the Houston Texans, the only team still looking for a head coach, will hire Bieniemy or Leslie Frazier. Even if they do, it does not change the gaping racial disparity in the league’s top positions.

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is still without an NFL head-coaching position.

Of the 14 openings for head coaches and general managers, people of color are likely to fill just four of them. For a fourth consecutive hiring cycle, only one Black or brown man has been hired as a head coach, the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh.

That makes four in a 32-team league where more than two-thirds of the players are people of color, the same as it was last year.

The number of Black and brown general managers did more than double with the hirings of Terry Fontenot in Atlanta and Brad Holmes in Detroit, and the expected announcement of Martin Mayhew in Washington. To five.

“We’re out of the excuses that have been used for a century to explain an acute under-representation of minorities in leadership positions,” Pamela Newkirk, who included a chapter on the NFL in her book “Diversity Inc.: The Fight for Racial Equality in the Workplace," told me recently.  

“Now it’s just coming down to, `OK, we’re just going to normalize the exclusion of people of colors in these roles.’”

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That is not something NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can fix. Nor the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the non-profit organization that champions diversity in the NFL. They can – and do – identify the league’s many promising minority candidates. They have worked together to create incentives for teams to develop minority coaches and front-office personnel, and expanded the Rooney Rule.

But it is the owners who do the hiring. And while they might talk a good game, their actions tell the real story.

Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was an original member of the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee, which created the Rooney Rule, and is a very public proponent of racial equality. Yet the Eagles haven’t had a Black or brown coach or general manager since 1998 and, despite interviewing Bieniemy for their open coaching job, are hiring Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.

This is not a criticism of Sirianni, who might well turn out to be a fine coach. But when you consider that the Eagles are looking for someone to fix Carson Wentz and Bieniemy has been instrumental in the development of Patrick Mahomes in his three years as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, you have to wonder why not Bieniemy? Or, if the Eagles don’t want to wait on Bieniemy, how about Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who oversaw an offensive rookie of the year-worthy season for Justin Herbert despite Herbert being forced into the starting job after a nonexistent offseason?

Except, of course, for the obvious.

Oh, owners will swear it’s all about the “right fit” or say someone reflects their team’s “culture.” But those are simply code words for a white guy with good connections or good-enough credentials.

If Sirianni, Dan Campbell, Brandon Staley or Arthur Smith were Black or brown, you can be certain something would have been found in their resume, background or personality to disqualify them. (“Doesn’t call plays” and “Didn’t interview well” are my personal favorites.) But they are not, so they are celebrated as wunderkids, their shortcomings somehow repackaged into selling points.

Urban Meyer has never worked a day in the NFL, spent the past two years doing TV and comes with enough baggage to require help to the elevator. But he’s white, so the Jacksonville Jaguars are certain that his considerable success at the college level will translate to the NFL. Never mind all the evidence to the contrary.

“The disparity in opportunities is mind-boggling,” Rod Graves, the former Arizona Cardinals GM who is now executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a statement Monday.

“If we are to change the portrait of NFL leadership, then the responsibility will require direct participation from the players, the fans, the media and NFL sponsors. It is our best pathway to progress.”

It certainly won’t be at the owners’ initiative. They've shown, yet again, that it's not about making the right hire.

It's about making the white one.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour @nrarmour.