- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

In 1998, Ray Rhodes was fired as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles after two straight losing seasons and a 30-36-1 overall record. The very next year, he was hired to coach one of the NFL's oldest and most storied franchises, the Green Bay Packers.

But in an extensive document released last week, famed trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Washington lawyer Cyrus Mehri not only advance the charge of racial discrimination against black coaches in the NFL, they claim Rhodes and the league's four other black head coaches have been held to higher standards than their white peers.

The report is titled "Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities."

But if the logic of applying the case of Ray Rhodes to the concept of superior performance is questionable, it is not the only example. Many of the conclusions reached in the report described as based on the "unprecedented" statistical analysis prepared by University of Pennsylvania labor economist Janice Madden do not appear valid. Some of the methodology is questionable, as well.

Nevertheless, Cochran, who gained widespread attention by successfully defending former NFL star O.J. Simpson against murder charges, also mentioned the possibility of a lawsuit against the league unless the situation changes.

"For years we have discovered and documented how minority professionals are forced to significantly outperform their white counterparts to advance half as far," Cochran and Mehri write in the executive summary of the report.

"Even those employees who break through the glass ceiling are afforded far less room for error than similarly situated whites. The same is true among NFL head coaches, and we have the numbers to prove it."

Those numbers are the records of the five black coaches in the NFL's modern era, compared with those of 86 white coaches. But comparing such a small group to such a large group seems to diminish a key element of the report, that black coaches averaged 1.1 wins a season more than white coaches.

The average season for the white coaches was 8-8. Small wonder. Since white coaches comprise most of the group, half have to win, half have to lose.

Madden acknowledges there are too few black coaches to apply formal statistical evidence in every case. After reading the report, Paul Smith, the director of the University of Maryland Statistics Laboratory, said, "She can't say that this is statistically conclusive evidence. She's been careful to hedge by making this footnote."

Even Mehri agreed, "but we're not trying to say black coaches are superior," he said. "We're saying they deserve a chance to compete, and when they have gotten an opportunity, they have performed well."

Not always, as in the case of Rhodes. His firing after going 8-8 in one year in Green Bay was cited in the report as evidence of discrimination. "The superior performers are the only ones who get selected," Mehri said. "If the black candidates equal the white candidates, the black candidates won't be picked."

The circumstances of his hiring were not mentioned.

Among the five black coaches, only Minnesota's Dennis Green brought any experience as a head coach (Stanford) to the NFL. How could their hirings have been based on being "superior performers?" Every first-time head coach in the NFL lacks a track record.

Yet Rhodes did have a track record when he went to the Packers, and it wasn't very good. He had clearly underperformed his white counterparts.

In the last 15 years, the time period used for the study, 10 NFL head coaches have gone to different teams the next season on 11 occasions (Dan Reeves did it twice). But only two coaches had losing career records at the time. Sam Wyche went to Tampa Bay in 1992 after going 64-68 with Cincinnati. However, he also led the Bengals to the Super Bowl after the 1988 season.

The other was Rhodes. Although his first two Eagles teams went 20-12 in the regular season and made the playoffs, his .457 winning percentage with Philadelphia remains the lowest among the post-1986 coaching transplants.

Rhodes also had the worst back-to-back seasons among the 10 coaches before changing jobs 6-9-1 and 3-13. And of the four Eagles coaches since 1985, only Rhodes is below .500. His predecessor, Rich Kotite, was fired after going 37-29. Yet when Mike Holmgren left Green Bay for Seattle, then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf considered Rhodes' abilities as a defensive coach, not his record.

Nor his race. Blacks in Green Bay comprise slightly more than 1 percent of the population, the smallest in any NFL market.

"I thought he was an excellent coach," said Wolf, who is retired and living in Annapolis. "The object is to win, and that's the whole object. That's why you keep score. That's why people get opportunities."

Wolf would not comment on why he fired Rhodes and promoted assistant Mike Sherman, who now doubles as head coach and director of football operations. The Packers under Rhodes in 1999 failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, and Wolf said the matter has been well-documented.

"We underachieved this year," Wolf said when he announced the firing. "For whatever reason, the players did not respond to this program."

Many of the assertions in the report are based on the combined 265-213-1 record (including playoff games) of the five black coaches Rhodes; Green, who lasted nearly 10 years in Minnesota before resigning with one game left in the 2001 season; Tony Dungy, who was fired after six seasons at Tampa Bay and immediately hired as coach of the Indianapolis Colts; Art Shell, who was fired after six years in Oakland; and Herman Edwards, who last year was named coach of the New York Jets.

Dungy, Green and Shell, who was hired in 1989 as the league's first black coach since Fritz Pollard briefly coached in the 1920s, all had winning records and were named coach of the year. Rhodes also earned that honor with the Eagles. The newest coach, Edwards, went 10-6 in his first season with the Jets in 2001 before losing in the playoffs. This year the Jets are 1-4 and among the league's most disappointing teams.

Cochran and Mehri note they are "the first to apply methods of statistical analysis developed in civil rights enforcement cases to this issue."

Citing cases of racial discrimination in such corporations as Texaco, Johnson & Johnson and BellSouth, they write that "the parallels between the struggles of African-Americans at these companies and within the NFL coaching ranks are striking."

Racial inequality exists in some form in all aspects of American society, including sports. Inside and outside the NFL, there is universal agreement that minorities should be afforded more and better opportunities for coaching advancement. Almost all would agree that currently having two black coaches out of 32, and just five in history, runs contrary to any notions of diversity and fairness.

But fairness works both ways. The report maintains that blacks are "last hired, first fired," without mentioning that Marty Schottenheimer, who is white, was fired in January by Redskins owner Dan Snyder after just one season. The club went 8-8 and won eight of its last 11 games.

The Redskins also fired Richie Petitbon after one year in 1993. Other one-year coaches were Rod Rust with New England (1990), Pete Carroll with the Jets (1994) and Joe Bugel with Oakland (1997). All had losing records. Al Groh had one season with the Jets and went 9-7, but resigned to become the coach at the University of Virginia.

The list of coaches who lasted two seasons is much longer. It includes Cleveland's Chris Palmer, Kansas City's Gunther Cunningham and Denver's Wade Phillips, and seems to indicate that coaches all coaches simply are not lasting as long as they used to. Jerry Glanville's famous line from a few years ago that the NFL stands for "Not For Long" seems more true than ever.

"The game has changed dramatically the last four years," Wolf said. "It's gone from a four-year program to a one-year program. You have to win. There's no longer a grace period. If you don't win, you're gonna be bounced. I don't care what color you are."

But even the concept of winning sometimes means different things, or coaches are fired for altogether different reasons. The report fails to note this, as well.

With Dungy and Shell, there was a sense that their teams, while successful, had hit a plateau and seemingly could not reach the next level. Many coaches can relate to that. And occasionally, other issues exist. With Green, one issue apparently was a struggle for control. A published report said Vikings owner Red McCombs believed Green "lost his effectiveness as a leader" and wanted Green to relinquish some of his power. That was the public posture, anyway.

Despite making the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons, Green, who never took the Vikings to the Super Bowl, was a controversial figure. He had a running battle with the media and was accused of sexual harassment (charges were dismissed). In his autobiography, which he chose to release during the middle of the 1997 season, he claimed members of the Vikings ownership group had tried to undermine him.

A Minneapolis columnist reported that Green said he quit because he did not believe the Vikings had a very bright future, a prediction that has held up. Minnesota is 0-4 so far, with star receiver Randy Moss playing poorly and his off-field problems continuing.

Green was a survivor. When he quit, he was tied with Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher for the league lead in seniority among head coaches. Among coaches whose departure was not their decision, Green, Dungy, Shell and even Rhodes coached longer than their peers, averaging seven years in the league. The average tenure for all other coaches who were fired or resigned under pressure since 1986 is less than four years.

It can be argued that the coaches won and deserved to keep their jobs. But that didn't apply to Kotite, nor Pete Carroll in New England nor Schottenheimer in Cleveland nor Jack Pardee in Houston (Oilers) nor Wade Phillips in Buffalo, all of whom were fired with winning records. Barry Switzer left Dallas amid strained relations with owner Jerry Jones after going 45-26 and winning a Super Bowl.

Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe last year was criticized for bypassing then-Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who is black, and hiring Tennessee defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is white. Part of the criticism, noted in the report, is that Donahoe did not fly Lewis to Buffalo for an interview. This is true, Donahoe said.

"I conducted all the interviews off-site," said Donahoe, whose final list of four candidates included another black assistant, Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell.

Donahoe bristled at the suggestion that interviewing Lewis, now the Redskins' defensive coordinator, or Cottrell was viewed by some as window-dressing or a mere formality.

"I wouldn't do that," he said. "I wouldn't waste anybody's time. But you can't tell somebody who to hire. Unless you're there, you don't know how somebody interviews. How somebody conducts an interview, how he presents himself, that's the most important thing.

"If people looked into what the league has tried to do, and what individual teams have tried to do, they probably wouldn't be as critical. Sometimes these things seem to me like knee-jerk reactions. I commend the league for what it's done in the last four or five years. What it's attempted to do is give people a chance to be interviewed."

Responding to the report last week, the NFL noted that 23 black assistants were interviewed for head coaching jobs the last five years, and re-emphasized that it started several programs during the last few years designed to increase opportunities for minorities. One of those programs is an internship that helped Edwards land the Jets job.

The league also released some numbers: In 1980, there were 14 black assistants, and none were coordinators. In 1997 there were 103 black assistants and five coordinators. Now there are 154 (out of 547, 28 percent), and 12 are coordinators.

"There has been," Donahoe said, "a concerted effort to promote minorities."

Obviously, many disagree. This is a highly charged, complex, emotional issue. The report notes that the Baltimore Ravens should be credited for giving Ozzie Newsome more front-office responsibility than any minority executive in the league. But when a message for Newsome asked him to address this topic, a media-relations person said he would rather not.

Maybe the last words on the subject are these: "It should be the best coach [who is hired], regardless of race."

Cyrus Mehri said that.

Staff writer Patrick Hruby contributed to this report.


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