NFL 'Goes Long' with Diversity Initiatives

News Updates

The National Football League (NFL) has launched several diversity initiatives designed to improve the representation of racial and ethnic minorities and women in the league headquarters and among the teams. Generally, sports diversity experts give the league high marks for improving racial diversity, but progress for women lags.
While the ranks of players are racially and ethnically diverse, the team owners, executives and coaches are less so. The league is trying to leverage its brand to make it more attractive to a wider array of job candidates.

“We are trying to get the word out that this is a destination organization from a talent perspective,” said Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s executive vice president of human resources. “We’re starting to see diversity become embedded in the business,” he said in a phone interview with SHRM Online.

The diversity and inclusion community is watching the NFL’s progress closely.

“This really is a litmus test for our culture,” said Edwin Garcia, PhD, MBA, a former vice president of diversity and inclusion for the sports network ESPN. The issues that the NFL is dealing with “have transcended sports,” he told SHRM Online, because people look at sports as places where performance is measured fairly. If the NFL headquarters and team executives reflect the makeup of the overall population, “it can do so much good,” he said.

The league has taken a number of steps to achieve its goal.

In May 2011, for example, the league inaugurated the Women’s Interactive Network, a networking group for employees. In addition, it has partnered with the nonprofit Women in Sports and Events to provide career management assistance and has worked closely with diversity advocacy organizations, such as the Fritz Pollard Alliance.

Moreover, almost 300 NFL employees have taken part in diversity training in the past two years. The league has established diversity accountability for senior leaders, improved diversity recruitment resources and created talent management programs.

In October 2012, it hosted a pro sports diversity symposium in New York City.

NFL’s Diversity Report Card

A recent report gave the league its third consecutive A grade on racial hiring practices, but a C+ score for its gender hiring efforts. The 2012 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card, released Sept. 13, 2012, by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, gave the NFL a combined B grade.

Diversity programs “have been paying large dividends for the NFL,” said TIDES Director Richard Lapchick in a news release accompanying the report. “At the league office, the example is being set for the teams by continuing to make improvements in the hiring of women and people of color in senior positions.”

Among the report’s findings, based on 2011 data:

  • Sixty-seven percent of NFL players were African-American; 31 percent were white; 2 percent were Latino and other races.
  • Seventy-five percent of league office employees were white; 10 percent were Asian; 8 percent were African-American; 7 percent were Latino and other races.
  • Twenty-eight percent of league office employees were women.
  • Seventy-five percent of head coaches were white; 22 percent were African-American; 3 percent were Latino.

The number of women and people of color at or above the vice president level in the league office increased from 26 in 2011 to 28 in 2012; however, there is only one female president or CEO of a team: Amy Trask of the Oakland Raiders. There is only one majority owner of color: Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Diversity a ‘Core Value’ for NFL

By incorporating diversity goals and objectives into the goals of its leadership team, the NFL is demonstrating that diversity is “one of our key core values,” said Gulliver.

“It’s not just something for HR and our Diversity Council to work on,” he added. “It’s something of a mindset shift. … I have managers come to me and say ‘I want a diverse group.’ ”

Gulliver said the NFL has no numerical targets for women and minorities. Its goal is constant improvement.

“We’re striving to be a leader,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s vice president of player engagement and a former Pro Bowl player. “We want to be part of a broader conversation” in society.

“Diversity is not a program. It is part of our DNA,” Vincent told SHRM Online. “We should not have to force people to do what they need to do” to become diverse employers. “We understand that it will take time,” particularly regarding hiring and promoting women. “We have to do it first” at the league office, he said.

In recent years, much of the focus on NFL diversity has surrounded the Rooney Rule, which is designed to ensure that minority candidates are considered for coaching and executive positions. Critics claim that there is no way to prevent sham interviews of minorities.

A New York University study suggests that the rule has value beyond the numbers of minorities hired. “Tackling Unconscious Bias in Hiring Practices: The Plight of the Rooney Rule,” a paper by Brian W. Collins, concludes that “The Rooney Rule forces decision makers to actively confront their own unconscious bias by mandating face-to-face contact and social interaction with African American candidates. While its method is imperfect and its societal impact debatable, without the Rooney Rule NFL team decision makers would likely continue to rely upon unconscious bias in identifying head coaching prospects.”

Someday, said Vincent, “We want to get away from a Rooney Rule. It should just be part of what we do.”

NFL Tackles More Than Race and Gender

In addition to efforts focused on women and people of color, NFL diversity efforts are putting more focus on matters of religion and sexual orientation, Vincent noted. The NFL diversity symposium featured a session on gays and lesbians in pro sports management positions.

“That was a major statement for the NFL,” said Keith Harrison, an associate director of TIDES and an associate professor of sports business at the University of Central Florida who is doing research for the league.

“We need to have special moments” to demonstrate the change under way, such as in 1973 when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in tennis and in 2012 when Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz said that he wants to be the first openly gay champion fighter.

Vincent said that discussion of matters such as sexual orientation and religion in pro sports is helping to “frame diversity and inclusion as a 21st century issue.”

In the NFL, “We understand the power of our brand and the influence of our players,” added Vincent. “It can lead to societal change.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer and a former writer and editor for SHRM. His website is