STARTING TOMORROW: Imitations of discussion!


Grandson of a head coach: We've watched the discussion several times. It constituted the final segment of yesterday's Meet the Press.

Everyone agreed with the basic Storyline—and in this instance, the basic Storyline may even be basically right!

The discussion involved the number of black head coaches among teams in the NFL. This topic has been widely discussed for at least the past twenty years, but the topic is suddenly back in the news due to a high-profile lawsuit.

Yesterday, the discussion involved Chuck Todd and a four-member panel—and everyone seemed to agree with a basic premise. Todd had set the stage for the discussion during a "Data Download" segment—a segment which started like this:

TODD (2/6/22): Welcome back. "Data Download" time. 

What should've been an exciting time for the NFL leading up to next week's Super Bowl has turned out to be a week of headlines about racial inequality in the league's upper ranks after recently fired Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores brought a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the league's hiring process. 

The suit sparked a lot of discussion about the discrepancy between who calls the plays and who executes them. And this is a case where the numbers just don't lie. 

Here's obviously the makeup of the league:

Seventy percent of the league is made up of players of color. It's pretty clear. 

Now look at the distinction of head coaching, right? See, 70% of the players are of color. Three out of 32 [sic] head coaches right now are of color. 

Twenty-six of the current head coaches—there are still some vacancies—belong to white men. 

As he continued, Todd offered more data, including one point we'll cite below. But that's how the "download" began. 

In that first part of his presentation, Todd had defined a basic premise—a premise which may even be right. Also, he offered the standard statistical way the premise is routinely defended.

The NFL is a very big deal in modern American culture. That said, is racial discrimination involved in the league's hiring process—in the hiring decisions made or overseen by the league's 32 owners? 

("The NFL" doesn't hire the league's head coaches. The 32 team owners do.)

Saying that the numbers don't lie, Todd presented the standard statistical comparison—the "discrepancy between who calls the plays and who executes them." Here it is again:

Seventy percent of NFL players are people of color. But only three out of 32 head coaches right now are people of color. Only one current head coach is black.

(As of yesterday morning, it was really three out of 29 head coaches, since there were three coaching vacancies. Later yesterday, Miami hired a head coach who identifies as multiracial. You can categorize that as you wish.)

It's certainly true that Todd's numbers "don't lie." It's also true that those numbers may not provide the perfect framework for understanding this state of affairs—a state of affairs no one officially likes, from the NFL office on down.

Why is that standard statistical comparison possibly a bit off-target? Here's why:

Of the NFL's 30 current head coaches, we count only six who ever played in the NFL.

For better or worse, playing in the NFL has never been the principal route to head coaching positions. Much more often, head coaches are people who played college football on a non-elite level, then began assistant coaching careers as soon as they finished college.

So it was for the universally-admired Mike Tomlin, the only black head coach in the league. He's been head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007. According to the leading authority on his life, his career track started like this:

Tomlin graduated in 1990 from Denbigh High School in Newport News, Virginia. He graduated from the College of William and Mary [in 1995], becoming a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. As a wide receiver, he was a second-team All-Yankee Conference selection in 1994.

His coaching career began in 1995 as the wide receiver coach at Virginia Military Institute under head coach Bill Stewart. Tomlin spent the 1996 season as a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis, where he worked with the defensive backs and special teams. Following a brief stint on the University of Tennessee at Martin's coaching staff, Tomlin was hired by Arkansas State University in 1997 to coach its defensive backs. Tomlin stayed there for two seasons, before being hired as defensive backs coach by the University of Cincinnati...

The long career road winds on from there. The Steelers hired him as head coach when he was only 34—and he's never had a losing season.

For better or worse, most head coaches in the league don't come from the ranks of former players. That said, Todd offered the standard statistical comparison, in which the high percentage of black players is compared to the much smaller percentage of black head coaches.

(Fuller disclosure: In five different seasons in the last decade, there were seven or eight minority head coaches. The number has fallen since then.)

Does racial discrimination play a role—perhaps a large, even a very large role—in the hiring of NFL coaches? As far as we know, it very well may—though we've been struck by some of the ways this topic has been discussed since Flores filed his lawsuit last week.

Since everyone agrees with the Storyline—with a Storyline which may well be accurate—everyone has also agreed to blow past certain oddities in various things which are being uniformly said. 

This may seem to turn these discussions into something more like attempts at discussion—or perhaps into imitations of discussion, the type of "discussion" we see most commonly here in this vale of tears.

As the week proceeds, we'll sift through various aspects of this long-standing, renewed discussion—various aspects of the discussion which have struck us as possibly odd. As we do, we'll visit other ongoing attempts at discussion—attempts at discussion of major topics which may affect wider swaths of the American public.

Sometimes, it seems to us that if it weren't for all the pseudo-discussions we see in the press, there would be no discussions at all! We'll keep that thought in mind this week as we watch reporters and pundits attempt to discuss a recent array of topics, not excluding what Whoopi Goldberg Said Last Week and The Horse Our Own Scholar Rode Out On.

Various questions have crowded their way onto the pile of late. Why was Pamela Moses sentenced to prison down in Memphis? Was something "wrong" with what Goldberg said about the Holocaust?

Did the RNC actually say that the people who attacked police officers on January 6 were engaged in “legitimate political discourse?” Was it smart for the author of Maus to tell CNN that the school board in Bumfuck was "stupid" when they dropped his graphic novel from their Grade 8 curriculum—that the members were even "stupider" than they would have been had they been merely Nazis?

Have people been telling "lies" about the National Butterfly Center? (That's the word the New York Times chose to headline, and to run with, in yesterday's front-page report.) 

Should the Supreme Court "look like the country?" Is there any way to do such a thing, or is that very framework dumb? Also, is race really "a social construct?" Last Thursday, Don Lemon specifically asked. The analysts screamed and tore at their hair as the discussion proceeded.

All those topics and more! But also, to what extent has the discussion about the NFL really been making good sense? It seems to us that some rather strange claims lie at the heart of the Flores lawsuit. 

It's also clear that Flores, and his somewhat offensive lawyers, aren't going to be challenged on any of these slightly peculiar points. Within the realm of the pundit class, Storyline strongly prevails.

Let's return to the start of Todd's presentation. It's certainly true that those numbers don't lie, but it's also true that those numbers don't speak for themselves. At stake here is our ability to frame intelligent discourse—to conduct anything like a real discussion at this highly partisan time.

To what extent do we ever do that? We do that very rarely. Tomorrow, we'll start with the (accurate) statement Todd made about the grandson of a former NFL head coach.

"As you know," Todd said, "one of the coaches is the grandson—in the Super Bowl this year—is the grandson of a former NFL [head] coach."

As a matter of fact, we didn't know that! When we looked it up, we learned that the other head coach in this week's Super Bowl is the son-in-law of a former NFL head coach!

From the NFL office on down, no one likes the look of those overall numbers concerning NFL coaches. For that reason, everyone has signed on to prevailing Storyline, and to its standardized claims.

That said, almost all American discourse is currently built from Storyline—is Storyline all the way down. Discussions tend to be stone-cold crazy when they start with Giuliani, Powell, Flynn, Trump—merely dumb and self-defeating when they start Over Here.

It's harder and harder to read the day's newspapers in the midst of this tribalized reign. Where do you go for a skillful discussion?

We'll be asking the question all week.

Tomorrow: Perhaps a few slightly odd claims


  1. Yet another base rate fallacy.


  2. "Seventy percent of NFL players are people of color. "

    This is an outrage: obvious discrimination of the colorless citizens!

    We demand equality!

  3. “For better or worse, playing in the NFL has never been the principal route to head coaching positions. “

    This is a straw man.

    The question isn’t whether the coaches were once NFL players.

    Also, “The NFL" doesn't hire the league's head coaches. The 32 team owners do.)”

    But the NFL does set guidelines and rules for the teams to follow.

    1. The comment about players vs. coaches was his response to this quote:

      "70% of the players are of color. Three out of 32 [sic] head coaches right now are of color."

      He's saying if you don't become a coach by first being a player, then the above quote isn't evidence that hiring practices are racist. It also isn't evidence that they are not racist.

      Make sense?

    2. No it does not make sense.

      The numbers suggest that teams are perfectly fine having players of color but not coaches of color. The route to coaching is a) not set in stone, ie somewhat arbitrary, b) the route Somerby lays out is also significantly filled with people of color, and c) involves institutional racism, ie owners do not have to resort to personal racism, they can externalize that to the institutional route of becoming a coach.

      I am not going to ask "Make sense?" because a) it is patronizing, and b) that there are various forms of racism is an uncomfortable notion for those leaning to the right.

    3. Sorry you read that into my use of "Makes sense" I was asking genuinely to see if my explanation did or not.

      So let's say all current coaches were former players, can you see how that would make the statistics much more relevant about comparing percentages?

      Now let's say I said there were 70% black people at my local mall. And then noted only 10% of coaches are black. Can you see how that would not be relevant?

    4. Let's say 70 percent of your state was Republican, yet 90 percent of your representatives in congress were Dems. Can you see how your point is not relevant, rational, or sensible?

      Now, let's move in a little closer.

      Let's say 70 percent of your state was white, but only 10 percent of homeowners were white. Sound fair?

    5. Representatives in congress are a sub set of residents of the state. Homeowners in a state are a subset of state residents.

      The point made was that coaches are not a sub set of players (all coaches were not players).

      This is my point. What do you think my point is? Can you quote me? And then maybe we can determine if it's relevant, rational, or sensible.

    6. It doesn't matter that the obstacle for black coaches is within the traditional pipeline from which white head coaches are hired. The number of black NFL players shows that there are a large number of talented and interested black men who might form that pool. If the less qualified or less talented players become coaches, it is reasonable to assume that there were will be a lot of them too among black players, since not every black college football player gets to the NFL either. The question is whey they are not advancing, not where is the pipeline for black players.

    7. Well if the question can only be one or the other I am inclined to agree. But I was working under the impression that there are several factors worthy of analysis, and I wasn't trying to imply that the hiring process is NOT racist, only that pointing out 70% of players are black is not the best way to prove it.

    8. Unlike Republican voters who aren't bigots, Rationalist could probably name some NFL Head Coaches who didn't play in the NFL.

    9. In the early days of football, there were no black players. Then for a long time, there were no black quarterbacks. This is just the next step in rolling back racism in this particular sport.

      "In 1920, Fritz Pollard became the first African-American to play in the NFL during its formative years. However, in the years after Fritz's departure, the NFL owners imposed a “gentleman's agreement” preventing the signing of more black players. The four men below are credited with re-integrating the NFL in 1946."

    10. In other words, Maddow is good and modern media frames intelligent discourses around important topics.

    11. The comment at 4:31 is hard to believe it is so obtuse. There are various issues with your "subset" framing, and it ignores that in a country where racism was foundational and continues significantly, then a group of blacks managed by a few whites is not just they way things are, but a manifestation of that racial oppression. Pointing out the 70% black players/3 black coaches difference disapprovingly makes sense, just like applauding if there were 70% black players/20 black coaches.

      1) Black players are a subset of black people, which include people who could become coaches.

      2) Coaches are a subset of NFL team employees just like players are a subset of NFL team employees.

      3) Coaches not being a subset of players is not only not true (Somerby is just putting his thumb on the scale) but coaches and players are both a subset of the population of potential coaches and/or players.

      4) If your state is Republican but represented by Dems, then the Representatives are not a subset - through gerrymandering for example, the homeowners are not a subset - through redlining for example, in the same way coaches are not a subset of players, to the extent that is even true. These two examples in fact work perfectly well within your subset framing.

      5) Your point presupposes that players can not become coaches. This is false.

      Limiting your framing to subsets ignores context, ignores the impact of racism. When you have a large group of black people managed by a few whites, it aptly draws a line straight back to slavery, pretending it does not is just denying racism. Throwing your hands up and saying well there just is no way for black people to become managers is not a relevant, rational, or sensible argument.

      If you do not think black lives matters, at least consider that context matters.

    12. A black was hired yesterday.

  4. "The NFL is a very big deal in modern American culture."

    This is just bone headed bullshit.

    "is race really "a social construct?"

    Race is not only a social construct, it is a function of racism. Race exists because racism exists.

    When the only oppression you can find of people of color is in the NFL, which you also question, you are willfully being ignorant, and you are arguing in bad faith.

    White wealth is nearly 8 times that of black wealth, and the gap has been increasing over the last 30 years. There's your racism. Welcome to America, Somerby.

    1. I read this several times and just can't make sense of pretty much any of it. I must be bone headed.

    2. Doesn't it get boring pretending to care about racism?

    3. Perhaps, or possibly racist...

      It seems pretty straight forward, nothing in that comment is new, it has been said similarly through the ages.

      The NFL is at best a sideshow in American culture.

      Race is a function of racism; no racism, no one would bother about race - as has been the case for most of human history, largely until Americans embraced slavery. That is, broadly speaking, when race was constructed.

      Want an example of real oppression, as opposed to the not unimportant but fairly insignificant NFL oppression? Wealth inequality offers a stark and clear example.

      So, we do not know if you are bone headed, racist, or acting in bad faith. To be frank, and nothing personal, but I do not think anyone cares, if you want to feign confusion, more power to you.

    4. The function of racism is distraction.

      In your case it is used to distract from class issues.

    5. Okay sorry I pointed out that the comment was confusing but I am still confused.

      "Race is a function of racism". It seems like you are saying race wouldn't exist without racism. Like, there would be no races if they weren't pointed out?

      I honestly thought today might be a good day to figure out what you are saying, I'm taking a stab at it.

      Wealth inequality is a great issue to explore, I'd be willing to talk about that too.

    6. "So, we do not know if you are bone headed, racist, or acting in bad faith. To be frank, and nothing personal, but I do not think anyone cares..."

      So again I am confused and have to ask for clarification.

      Why speculate about the possibilities if you feel that no one cares? Which strongly implies that you don't care.

      And if you indeed don't care, but wished to speculate solely for the purpose of slipping in some name-calling, wouldn't that make "Nothing personal" disingenuous?

      I'll await your clarification before jumping to any conclusions.

    7. Yes you have it about correct on race not existing without racism. This is nothing new, it is how academics view the subject, broadly speaking.

      4:04 as many have pointed out, the two are not mutually exclusive, but with respect to America, demonstrably, race plays a more significant role. Almost every time we make gains class-wise, they are chipped and diminished via racism.

    8. I tried searching for the phrase "race is a function of racism" and got basically one result: a tweet and linked article by the NHS Federation.

      I was genuinely interested in the source of this concept, if you can link to any related academic papers I would be grateful.

    9. Since you are doing this in good faith, Rationalist, try using this as a search term: "would race exist without racism?" (omit quote marks)

      When you have trouble finding something using Google, you don't just throw up your hands and say that nothing exists. You try using different variations on the terms. If you have trouble thinking of good search terms, try asking a reference librarian.

      This is the equivalent of the college freshman who is assigned a research paper, and turns in something that says "Very little information exists on the Panama Canal."

    10. Yes that did yield better results.

      I was asking you where this was in academic literature because you said you were familiar with it, and it would save you time.

      Sorry if you've taken offense with that or felt like I was saying "nothing exists." I was not.

    11. Sorry that these concepts are new to you Rationalist. Let's hope we can stop those that are intentionally manufacturing ignorance.