In late May, the NFL hosted its first-ever NFL Coach and Front Office Accelerator Program to facilitate improved diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in hiring practices for the league's coaching and front-office ranks and create networking opportunities between aspiring candidates and teams.
More than 60 women and minority coaching and front-office prospects attended the two-day program, where they participated in leadership and development sessions. They also had face-to-face meetings with the team officials who have hiring power.
"The NFL is committed to diversity and inclusion, and this program is the latest in a series of steps designed to improve our hiring practices and create opportunities for advancement," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "The program helps ensure that clubs receive exposure to high-performing, up-and-coming NFL talent and candidates get a chance to learn the business on a working level from team owners and executives."
In March, league executives discussed the lack of diversity in leadership positions with several coaches and general managers who were at the time part of the hiring cycle, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP).
Those who attended the meeting concluded that a job interview shouldn't be the first time a candidate meets a club owner because the two parties typically do not know each other, which makes the interview difficult and could lead to ill-informed hiring decisions.
The solution, they surmised, would be a networking event where candidates and key team decision-makers can become better acquainted with one another prior to a potential interview down the road, per the AP report.
Nzinga Shaw, managing director and chief inclusion and diversity officer at talent firm ZRG Partners in Atlanta, said the launch of the Accelerator program is a step in the right direction, but the NFL needs to do more.
"The NFL has a responsibility to actively participate in the fight against injustice, even if it makes the ownership, leadership, sponsors or fanbase uncomfortable," said Shaw, who once served as an HR executive for the NFL and was a member of the league's Diversity Council. "The question is whether the NFL's collective leadership will create an enhanced organization that embraces the talent of Black, brown and Indigenous people at every level, including the top coaching and front-office positions."
NFL Expands Rooney Rule
The NFL has received scrutiny in recent years for lack of diversity in leadership positions.
In 2021, about 71 percent of NFL players were people of color and about 25 percent were white, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The races of the other 4 percent weren't disclosed or specified.
Yet just six of 32 head coaches are people of color—three Black, one biracial, one Hispanic and one of Lebanese descent—despite implementation of the Rooney Rule in 2003.
The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy requiring teams to interview at least two minority candidates for vacant head coaching and front-office positions. But many critics of the rule call it ineffective—and the statistics support this sentiment.
Between 2012 and 2021, NFL teams hired 82 white head coaches and general managers but only 17 people of color for those positions, according to the league's 2021 Diversity & Inclusion report. During that span, 168 white men and 51 people of color were hired into offensive or defensive coordinator positions.
In May 2020, the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule requirements: Teams must now conduct interviews with at least two external minority candidates for any head coach vacancies and one external minority candidate for coordinator positions, according to an NFL Network report.
In 2022, the NFL implemented additional changes to the rule that required teams to interview at least one minority and/or female candidate for all senior-level positions as well as conduct outside interviews with a minority and/or female candidate for vacant quarterback coach positions.
NFL Also Focusing on Diversity in Sports Medicine
On May 24, the NFL also announced the launch of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative, a program that will allow medical students at four historically Black colleges and universities to complete a clinical rotation with NFL teams' medical staff.
The initiative is a partnership between the NFL, NFL Physicians Society (NFLPS) and the Professional Football Athletic Trainer Society (PFATS). It aims to increase and diversify the pipeline of students interested in pursuing careers in sports medicine.
Through the program, students will observe and participate in the care of sports medicine patients in NFL club settings. Students will work with and under the supervision of team physicians and athletic trainers to gain medical knowledge and exposure to patient care in sports medicine.
"We have an opportunity to help increase the pipeline of diverse sports medicine professionals, which is imperative for us as a league," Goodell said in a statement. "This initiative is an example of how we can lend our platform for a societal benefit. I'm proud that our league can help inspire the next generation of sports medicine professionals."
Eighty-six percent of the NFLPS membership identify as white, 8 percent identify as Asian, 5 percent identify as Black and 1 percent identify as Hispanic, according to the NFLPS. According to PFATS, 65 percent of their membership identify as white, 23 percent identify as Black, 8 percent identify as Hispanic and 4 percent identify as Asian.
"We have significant work to do to ensure that the NFLPS membership more closely mirrors the player population we treat every day," NFLPS President and San Francisco 49ers head team physician Dr. Timothy McAdams said in a statement. "It begins here—by broadening the pipeline and encouraging medical students from diverse backgrounds to consider the possibilities of a career in sports medicine."