Column: For football, NFL offers diversity lessons
Next month, at Wembley Stadium, fans will see something unusual for the home of English football: two black head coaches leading their teams onto the field.
Raheem Morris of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears are both black, nothing to write home about for the NFL but still depressingly out of the ordinary in English football. Just their mere presence for the regular-season NFL game on Oct. 23 should ram home just how much the type of football played with round balls can and should learn from the other kind played with olive-shaped balls across the Atlantic.
Having made huge strides in combatting racism and hooliganism among its fans, the next challenge for English football and, indeed, for soccer elsewhere in Europe, is making sure that the rich ethnic diversity of players who sweat and labor on the field week-in, week-out is better reflected on the sidelines and in the executive boxes where much of football's power lies.
About 20 percent of soccer players in England's top four professional leagues are black, according to the players' union and the Football Association. But of the 92 clubs, just two have black managers - Chris Hughton at Birmingham in the second-tier championship and Chris Powell at Charlton, in the third-tier league. In the showcase Premier League, all 20 managers are white.
''If you looked at the representation on the field and the representation in the dugout, there's a clear anomaly,'' says Bobby Barnes, deputy chief executive of the players' union and a former professional.
Which is where the NFL offers some pointers.
Like English football, America's most popular sports league also used to suffer from an embarrassing lack of head coaching diversity. That has changed since the NFL required any team with such a vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. Only five blacks had coached in the NFL, beginning with Art Shell in 1989, and only two had the top job when the rule was adopted in 2003. Now, seven of the 32 teams have black head coaches. Black head coaches reaching the Super Bowl has also become virtually a non-issue since Tony Dungy, then with the Indianapolis Colts, and Chicago's Smith became the first in 2007.
A threatened suit by lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri in 2002 prompted the NFL to adopt its so-called Rooney Rule on vacancies. Mehri was in England this week, invited by the players' union to brief football officials about the rule and the greater diversity it has encouraged. The situation in English football now is ''uncannily similar if not identical'' to that of the NFL before the rule, he said.
''You change the names and you change the accents, it's exactly where America was in 2002 when we got started on this,'' Mehri said in a telephone interview. ''It's kind of like there's a poison, a poisonous tree, a species, that's been planted on two different continents having the same results.''
Barnes says part of the problem used to be that many black players, for whatever reason, couldn't foresee a future for themselves in management. But he says there's been ''real progress'' on changing those attitudes in the past decade. Now, 14 black or ethnic minority coaches have the most senior type of qualifications required to manage Premier League teams and another 89 - nearly 20 percent of all those with this coaching license - hold the next grade down of professional qualification, Barnes says. The FA is also distributing a short film designed to encourage blacks and ethnic minorities to qualify as coaches.
Yet, on the leagues' sidelines, the faces remain far whiter than on the field. Barnes suggests that one reason is that clubs tend to headhunt managers, rather than interview a wide and diverse range of candidates.
''Without a full and open recruitment procedure, it's very difficult to break through that glass ceiling,'' he said. ''We want to give those people hope, because what we are increasingly getting now, as well, is a lot of people are getting the qualifications and saying, 'What's the point? I've got the qualifications now and I still don't see the light at the end of the tunnel.'''
An NFL-type rule is only part of the solution, Mehri says. Also important is ensuring that teams know who the minority candidates are. In the NFL, that is done by placing them on ''ready-lists'' which put candidates on teams' radar screens and undercut any claims that there simply isn't a viable black coach available when a job opens up. Before the Buccaneers promoted him to head coach in January 2009, Morris was at the top of that list, Mehri added.
''We only put people on the list that are ready to go,'' he said. ''It's not just a rule. The ready-list brings it to life.''
It's too early to tell whether English football will follow the NFL's lead or adopt other measures. But the paucity of black managers in England's top leagues is there for all to see.
''This is a make-or-break issue for young people. It's like a poison that goes out into society and it sends a message when people see discrimination play out in front of their eyes. That's very demoralizing,'' Mehri said. ''If you create a situation where there's fair competition for jobs and it's a merit-based system, then all of a sudden, that's a message of empowerment and hope.''
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester