Why you should care

Because young black athletes now have more than running backs as role models.

Celeste Albone is a die-hard Bills fan — from birth, the 34-year-old adds, as if you needed convincing. Her right shoulder has a tat of the NFL team’s trademark buffalo, with the nearby city of Rochester’s five-petaled lilac within it. Not that her fandom ends there. Trace down her right arm and you’ll see another red-and-blue buffalo engraved on her pale skin. She loves her team, but her highest praise isn’t for a specific player, or even a coach: “Doug’s a boss,” she says.

That’s 42-year-old Doug Whaley, the team’s general manager, a position that, frankly, is off the radar for most fans. When he took over in 2013, the Buffalo Bills were a laughingstock. They hadn’t had a winning season in eight years or made the playoffs since 1999, easily the league’s longest playoff drought. But Whaley’s added talent, hired a top-level coach and last year helped Buffalo earn its first 9-7 record in a decade. “It was a step in the right direction, but we’re not satisfied yet,” Whaley tells OZY. Those high expectations bore fruit when Buffalo upset the favored Indianapolis Colts 24-14 to start the NFL season on Sept. 13 (the Bills are now 2-1). And the fact that it’s taken this long to mention he’s Black speaks to a far more meaningful type of success — this one off the field.

There are seven active African-American GMs, tied for the most ever in a single season. Whaley was the seventh in league history when he was hired; since then Cleveland’s Ray Farmer has become the eighth, although Arizona’s Rod Graves got canned in 2012. While the NFL has improved at the top, it’s seen more minority hiring at the lower rungs as well: There are six minority head coaches this year (the record is eight), and the number of ethnically diverse employees at or above the VP level was at 14 percent in 2013, according to the most recent available data. “At the league office, the example is being set,” said Richard Lapchick, whose Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave the NFL its fifth consecutive “A” for racial hiring practices last year. That grade trailed only the NBA (A+) for the best racial hiring practices in U.S. college and pro sports.

Minority hiring practices in pro sports are a microcosm of the modern civil rights movement: While things have gotten better, it’s clear that race relations are far from perfect.

Certainly the league deserves credit for its diversity kick, which was spurred by the Rooney Rule (the 2003 bylaw that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when hiring head coaches or senior football operatives). Especially since college hasn’t caught up yet — there were only 16 head coaches of color out of 128 NCAA Division I schools in 2013. That’s despite the fact that more than half of those college athletes were Black.

But even with the NFL’s advances, you can’t help but sniff out the less-than-colorblind approaches that have long plagued the league, which has always denied such accusations. A few decades ago, critics say, that came in some insidious ways, literally position by position, with centers and quarterbacks, play-calling positions requiring smarts, reserved for whites, while Black players were typically chosen for more athletic positions like linebacker or running back. League officials have firmly denied such stereotyping, but the problem appears to linger in the coaching ranks, where only two Blacks out of 32 NFL teams have been given the “sophisticated” role of offensive coordinator. That imbalance is especially troublesome as the league moves increasingly toward head coaches who can direct high-powered offenses.

Bad hiring practices are also bad for capitalism. “If you have to win, you cannot afford to indulge in retrograde thinking about race,” says Samuel Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor and the author of Breaking the Line, which chronicles the intersection between the civil rights movement and football’s own coming-to-grips with race.

As riots broke out during the “long, hot summer” of 1967, Freedman says, the sports world shifted too. Grambling State quarterback James Harris, a junior, threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns in a showdown of Black football powerhouses. That performance led him to the NFL soon after, where he became the first African-American quarterback to start regularly, be named team captain and make the Pro Bowl (where he won MVP honors). He set the stage for Art Shell to become the first Black head coach, in 1989, and Ozzie Newsome to become the first Black GM, in 2002. “They directly addressed this noxious stereotype,” Freedman says, “that Blacks could be the ‘natural athlete’ but not the intellectual equal of a white person.”

Minority hiring practices in pro sports are a microcosm of the modern civil rights movement: While things have gotten better, it’s clear that race relations are far from perfect. Just two years ago, eight coaching jobs and seven GM positions opened up, but not a single minority candidate got a job — although Whaley was brought in months later after longtime Buffalo decision-maker Buddy Nix called it quits. Historically, Black coaches are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. In 2013, the Bears sacked Lovie Smith after going 10-6, and, in 2012, the Colts dropped Jim Caldwell in only his second season, a year after he led them to a 14-2 record. Those decisions left a bitter taste for many in the league, though both men have since found new head-coaching gigs.

Back in Buffalo, fans chant Whaley’s name and ask for his autograph as he paces the sideline. Talking heads are talking up his squad as a potential playoff team with the league’s deepest roster, except at quarterback, the one position where Whaley hasn’t found a sure solution … yet. That’s fine by him. He’s just glad people are talking about x’s and o’s, rather than race. “The progress is that it’s not a topic of conversation,” Whaley offers. “No matter what color you are, it’s a production-based business.”

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