MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2022
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