Bieniemy Saga Personifies Hiring Biases

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP. Will this be the year Chiefs' assistant Eric Bieniemy finally gets a head coaching job?

Unless you are a hardcore professional football fan, odds are you’ve never heard of Eric Bieniemy.

But Bieniemy’s saga has suddenly come to symbolize everything wrong with the hiring practices of professional sports franchises and expose just how vapid and empty pro sports teams’ statements actually are about supporting social justice causes.

Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator for the Kansas Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions, who are a game away from playing for a second straight title. The Chiefs’ run to the top of the league has been powered by its high-flying offense, an attack expertly crafted and guided by Bieniemy. Over the last two seasons, Kansas City is 25-4, averaging almost 30 points a game in the regular season, and 5-0 in the playoffs when starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes is available.

Eye-popping numbers like that should make Bieniemy a shoo-in for an NFL head coaching job, a position he’s never held. After all, most NFL head coaches got their jobs after being highly-regarded assistant coaches – a few have jumped from the college ranks instead – with resumes often less impressive than the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. But Bieniemy appears to have one major disadvantage most NFL coaching candidates don’t: he’s Black.

And in the world of professional football, being Black means an uphill climb on the path to becoming a head coach of one of the NFL’s 32 teams, usually with little success.

A little more than 70 percent of the NFL player pool is Black, and another four percent identifies as non-white, mostly players of Polynesian descent. But despite making up only a quarter of the player pool, the vast majority of NFL head coaches are white.

In 2020, there were only three Black head coaches. One of them, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers, was fired at the end of the season, despite finishing his tenure with four straight wins and developing a rookie quarterback.

The NFL began 2021 with seven head coaching vacancies. Bieniemy has interviewed for all seven of the openings this winter and has already been passed over for six of them. None of those six jobs went to a Black coach.

(The New York Jets head coaching vacancy was filled by Robert Saleh, a Lebanese-American Muslim who was considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the NFL. That Saleh is qualified isn’t up for debate. But his hiring means there are almost as many Arab-American head coaches in the NFL as Black head coaches.)

Whether Bieniemy gets the last remaining opening in Houston remains to be seen. But even if he does, he’s far from the only qualified Black head coaching candidate. In Sunday’s conference title games, four of the offensive or defensive coordinators on the respective teams will be Black. Besides Bieniemy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense is run by Byron Leftwich, while his defensive counterpart is Todd Bowles. Matching wits with Bieniemy on the other sideline will be Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who, like Bowles, is a former head coach.

Based on merit, all of them have earned a head coaching shot. But if it were just based on merit, this column would be about something else altogether, and watchdog groups whose mission is to promote Black coaching wouldn’t be voicing their concerns.

“Thus far, the NFL hiring cycle of 2021 has not changed the rate of hires for Blacks as head coaches and primary football executives,” Rod Graves, executive director of Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group created in the early 2000s to help promote diversity in the NFL’s coaching and executive ranks, said Tuesday.

“There are many outstanding Black men and other men and women of color in the NFL,” added Graves. “The pipeline is as strong as it has ever been. The issue is not in the sufficiency of numbers; the problem is in the limited number of leadership opportunities given… The disparity in opportunities is mind-boggling. It is unfortunate that the performances of coordinators like Eric Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, Byron Leftwich, Leslie Frazier, and (Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator) Joe Woods, may not meet what appears as ‘ever-evolving standards’ for becoming a Black head coach in the NFL,”

The Fritz Pollard alliance was formed because in 2002 there were only two Black head coaches in the NFL, and qualified Black candidates were being passed over. Two decades later and there are currently… two Black head coaches in the NFL.

Sadly, this is not a problem unique to professional football.

In Major League Baseball, which has seen its numbers of Black American players dwindle for years – down to less than 8 percent last season – only two of the 30 managers are Black: Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker. That both made their respective league championship series and that Roberts – who is also half-Asian – won the World Series did not lack in irony, but it also didn’t inspire any other teams to hire a Black manager.

In contrast to MLB, 81 percent of NBA players are Black. But those overwhelming numbers haven’t carried over to the sidelines, where only seven of its 30 head coaches are Black. "I know we can do better,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted last fall.

At least Silver acknowledges the problem. The same can’t be said for Major League Soccer’s Don Garber, who continues to whistle past the graveyard when it comes to the hiring of Black coaches. Over 30 percent of the players in Garber’s league are Black – many of them international players representing the vast Black diaspora – yet only two of the league’s 27 teams have a Black head coach and fewer than half of its teams even have a Black assistant coach.

There have only been seven Black head coaching hires in MLS’ 26-year history, but Garber has never even publicly admitted MLS has a problem in this regard, in part because he is shielded by the league’s decent track record with Latino coaches, which MLS proudly claims as diversity hires.

(We’re gonna leave the NHL, where 96 percent of the players are white, out of this. Hockey needs to diversify its player pool before it can start realistically focusing on coaches of color. But in 2021, there is no valid excuse for a league that’s over 100 years old to still be so lily white.)

As outspoken on social issues as many professional female athletes have been in recent years, it is surprising that the two most prominent professional women’s leagues in the U.S. have a startlingly bad record when it comes to hiring both Black and female coaches.

In the 12-team WNBA, which is two-thirds Black, only three of the coaches are Black, while only five are women. Dallas Wings’ head coach Vickie Johnson is the league’s only Black female head coach – meaning there are as many Black women head coaches in the WNBA as there are now vice presidents of the United States. In the NWSL, which claims to be the top women’s soccer league in the world, about 10 percent of the players are Black but the 10-team league has neither a Black head coach nor even one Black assistant coach. And only one of its coaches is female. (Eight of its head coaches are from the United Kingdom, including the lone woman.) Keep in mind, the United States women are world powers in both soccer and basketball, winning numerous World Cups, Olympic gold medals and world championships the past, oh, forever years. These leagues seemingly must go out of their way to have head coaches that don’t resemble their playing pool. And representation should matter. When the coaches and executives in professional sports leagues don’t resemble their playing pool, it sends terrible messages to both players and the public, especially impressionable younger viewers: We’ll let you entertain us with your athletic gifts, but we don’t think you’re qualified to lead. It perpetuates awful and untrue racist and sexist stereotypes about mental acuity, work ethic and leadership skills. And those messages leak into other aspects of society, from corporate America to academia, politics to entertainment. Pro sports should be a leader in ending these perceptions by setting a better example. Instead, it’s part of the problem.

Seeing coaching as a viable career avenue shouldn’t be limited to mostly white candidates. But the coaching hires of the American pro sports leagues continue to show otherwise.

What makes this all the more galling is that all of these leagues are quick to brag about “support” for social and racial justice issues. During the summer, when Black Lives Matter protests were surging across the country, sports leagues, their respective teams, and commissioners couldn’t say enough about standing with their Black players and claiming to be leaders for change. In every NFL broadcast this season, the league has bragged about its “commitment to inspire change,” through its creatively named Social Justice Initiative. Earlier this week, to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, seemingly every pro team in America tweeted out how inspirational King’s messages are, and how they are honoring and supporting his legacy.

It’s not just the glaring hypocrisy or the embarrassing tone-deafness of these statements. Words without action are meaningless and often more destructive than saying nothing. One quote from King that none of them tweeted out comes from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Shallow understanding from people of good will. That’s where American pro sports are when it comes to recognizing how poorly they’ve supported actual Black lives, and social justice in general, with their tragically bad record of hiring Black coaches. Their words say they are allies. Their actions say something else altogether.