On the last play of the wildcard game in this year’s NFL playoffs between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott ran a draw play up the middle in an attempt to move the Cowboys into touchdown scoring range. After the play ended, the team lined up to kill the clock so they can run one more play and possibly score the game winning touchdown. The Cowboys never got that chance because the clock expired one second before Prescott spiked the ball, and the Cowboys were upset by the 49ers. One second was the difference between defeat, and a chance at the game-winning touchdown. One second, 1 yard, 1 inch, are the narrow margins that decide most NFL games. That is how competitive it is. That is how hard it is to win a game in the NFL. All four of the divisional round playoff games this year ended with a walk off victory on the final play of the game. Both Conference championship games were decided by a field goal in the last 2 minutes or in overtime. That is how narrow the margin of victory is in the NFL.
Tom Brady, arguably the greatest player ever to play in the NFL, retired this past week. In his retirement announcement on Twitter, he stated that "I have always believed the sport of football is an 'all-in' proposition -- if a 100% competitive commitment isn't there, you won't succeed, and success is what I love so much about our game… I have tried my very best these past 22 years. There are no shortcuts to success on the field or in life.”
After the Cowboys lost to the 49ers, the big question was, will Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy be fired? Simply by asking that question and placing the blame of that loss on the head coach, we are acknowledging that the role of the head coach is vitally important to the success or failure of the team. The head coach is not merely a figurehead, who has very little influence on the outcome of the games. Therefore, getting the best person in place based on merits and qualification is paramount. There’s a reason why head coaches get paid upwards to $12 million per year, and teams have been willing to trade first round draft picks to get the head coach they want.
This past week, former Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores has created a stir throughout the NFL by filing a lawsuit against the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, and the NFL, for alleged racist hiring practices. As evidence, he has pointed out that of the 32 NFL teams, right now, there is only one black head coach, and that coaching staffs and front offices throughout the league do not have enough “diversity”. NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell responded by saying, “We have made significant efforts to promote diversity and adopted numerous policies and programs which have produced positive change in many areas, however we must acknowledge that particularly with respect to head coaches the results have been unacceptable.”
Washington Commanders General Manager Jason Wright said, “I, in turn, have built the most diverse leadership team in the NFL. Where there's a will, there's a way. This is a low point [for the NFL]. It can very quickly get to a high point if a few folks are committed." He is absolutely right. If you want diversity, commit to diversity, and you’ll get diversity. But you won’t necessarily get success. It is interesting that Jason Wright didn’t say they have the best, most talented, smartest, most innovative leadership team in the NFL. He said they have the “most diverse leadership team in the NFL”. He wanted to have the most diverse, so he got the most diverse. The problem is many other owners and general managers want to have the best, the most talented, and the smartest leadership team in the NFL. And what wins on Sunday in the NFL is not diversity, but talent, intelligence, and innovation. So, as he is chasing diversity, many of his competitors are chasing victory.
Compare this type of “commitment to diversity” to Tom Brady’s belief that professional football is “an all-in proposition,” and a “100% competitive commitment”. If that isn’t there, you won’t succeed. That is coming from a man who has experience more success in the NFL than anyone. Arguably, the greatest player of all time.
Teams who don’t put winning first, usually lose. Some NFL teams put making money ahead of winning. And those teams usually make a pile of money, but they generally don’t win Super Bowls. If you put making money first, you’re putting winning second. You can’t worship two Gods. In a hyper-competitive environment like professional football where the majority of the games are won by one touchdown or less, if winning is not your number one priority, you’re setting yourself up to lose. So, if diversity is what you’re committed to, then winning becomes your second priority, and you’re setting yourself up to lose. This is not to say that you cannot be diverse, and also win a Super Bowl. There are numerous examples of minority head coaches and minority general managers who have won the Super Bowl. But they got their jobs based on merit, based on them being the best candidate for the job, not because of “diversity”.
The late great owner of the Raiders, Al Davis’ motto for his team was “commitment to excellence”. In 1979, Davis hired the first Hispanic head coach in NFL history, Tom Flores, and in 1989, hired first Black head coach in NFL history, Art Shell. Davis whose other famous motto was “just win baby”, didn’t hire these men out of a “commitment to diversity”, but out of his “commitment to excellence”. He believed that they were the best men for the job, and they were hired accordingly. Flores led the Raiders to 2 Super Bowl Championships, while Shell went on to lead the Raiders to 5 winning seasons in 7 years and was named AP Coach of the Year in 1990.
So, people or teams that are committed to diversity, are admitting that they do not have that “100% commitment” to success that Tom Brady talked about. And to be fair, if there are owners, who refuse to consider a minority candidate for a head coaching job or general manager position, they also do not have that 100% commitment to winning. Anytime, you place the color of person’s skin or their ethnicity over their qualifications and abilities when deciding to hire them in a hyper-competitive environment then you are putting yourself and your team at a competitive disadvantage.
It is not enough just to hire a qualified candidate of a preferred race; you must aim to hire the most qualified candidate regardless of race. The racist owner who hires the most qualified white guy, even if there are more qualified minority coaches available, and the “diversity-minded” owner who hires the most qualified minority coach, even if there are more qualified white coaches available, are both wrong. So, the racist owner and the diversity-minded owner are doing the exact same thing, they are placing the color of the person’s skin above their commitment to winning.
The NFL, and every major professional sport, is a meritocracy. The best player should play regardless of their skin color, their ethnicity, or their lifestyle. Carl Nassib, of the Raiders, came out as homosexual before the start of this past season, and he had a big impact on the success of the Raiders this year. He was not denied a chance to play because of his lifestyle off the field. If he can help the team win, then he should be in the lineup. And the hiring of coaches, and general managers should be based solely on the same thing, their ability, their knowledge, their qualifications which are vital to winning.
Everyone around the league acknowledges that a push to diversity in hiring reduces a team’s chances of getting the best people in place in order to win, because there is no push for more diversity on the playing field. Who makes the team and who doesn’t, who plays and who doesn’t is determined strictly by merit. Teams do not factor in the players race when determining if they’re going to keep them on the roster or play them in the game. Teams don’t assess the racial make-up of the roster when making final cuts. And if they do, they would be compromising their team’s chances of winning. Therefore, why would you do that for positions like general manager and head coach who can have a much greater impact on winning and losing then, the 53rd man on the roster, or a back-up running under a kick on special teams.
What if rookie kicker Evan McPherson who kicked the game winning 31-yard field goal for the Bengals over the Chiefs which propelled them to the Super Bowl, who had made three other field goals in that game, and also kicked the game winning 52-yard field goal with 4 seconds left the week before had been bypassed by Cincinnati in favor of a “diversity hire” because the NFL does not have enough minority place kickers? Even if the “diversity” kicker was a qualified kicker, but not as qualified as McPherson, the Bengals may be sitting at home. Those are the margins of victory and defeat in the NFL. If a team said they will not have a black quarterback, then they’re going to miss out on the chance of having Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson, but they would be just as wrong if they said they were not going to have any white wide receivers, because they would miss out on Cooper Kupp, or Wes Welker who have helped lead their teams to multiple Super Bowls.
You can argue that these diversity hirings are a make-up or retribution for the racist hirings of the past, but how does that help your players this year? How does it make your players perform better and to their optimum ability, if you knowingly hired a lesser candidate because of skin color? Would you tell them, ‘We hired this lesser coach to make up for racism in the past, so be happy with the 6-11 season.’ And everybody who believes that it is okay to hire a black coach because of his skin color, are in essence giving their stamp of approval for all those times when white coaches were hired because of their skin color. When you engage in racism, all you’re doing is giving your stamp of approval on everyone else’s racism.
At some point in the future maybe 20 to 30 years from now, when the fog of emotion about our present-day situation has lifted, we are going to be judged precisely on the words we said, and the positions we took, and the historical context of those positions which are real to us today will be removed, so our positions and our beliefs must transcend the time in which we live and be universal across all time. And the most universal and transcendent position about race, is to judge people and hire people based solely on their merit and on their character, and absolutely never take into consideration their race when deciding whether you should or should not hire that person.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.