We ain’t playing

OPINION: Imagine a world where Black athletes force the NFL to hire more Black coaches.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Kareem received a text message from Antar, one of his former college teammates who also plays in the NFL. It simply read, “I’m devastated. It’s time.” Kareem had been following the breaking news about Coach Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL and three of its teams for racial discrimination. Because Antar had been coached by Flores, Kareem had some sense of why his friend was so upset. But he misinterpreted the second half of the text message. He thought Antar was saying it was time for him to leave the NFL. He replied, “Nah bro, you love this league. It ain’t time for you to leave.”

Antar swiftly replied and clarified that he was not considering terminating his pro sports career. What he was proposing was too much to type. “I’m about to hit you and the guys on FaceTime.” Antar called Kareem, Eldrick and Pierre. The four of them have been great friends since they were high school football recruits to the same university. They played together for four college seasons before graduating with honors. Each of them now plays in the NFL. 

When they all joined the video call it wasn’t joyful like usual. Everyone was visibly frustrated by what was happening throughout the league. Antar normally goes around FaceTime to ask all the fellas how they’re doing and to require them to name one meaningful thing they’d done for someone else since the group was last together. This was their ritual; giving and doing for others had always been a unifying value in their friendship. But on this day, Antar started with, “It’s time.” Pierre nodded in agreement. “It’s been time,” Eldrick exclaimed. Kareem looked confused; he didn’t get it. “Time for what?”

In 2015, these four friends were juniors when Black football players at the University of Missouri threatened to forfeit a game (which would have resulted in a $1 million loss) if swift, serious actions were not taken to correct longstanding racial problems at the institution. That week, the Mizzou system president and the chancellor of the main campus were both forced to resign. Other substantive commitments were made to improve Black students’ lives on that campus. Even though they were in a different athletic conference, the activism of the Mizzou student-athletes greatly inspired Kareem, Antar, Eldrick, and Pierre. They strongly considered rallying teammates at their university to similarly protest the mistreatment of Black students. But they ultimately got scared; they were afraid of losing their scholarships. 

On the eve of the 2017 NFL Draft, Kareem, Antar, Eldrick, and Pierre promised each other that they would use their power and pro sports platforms to disrupt racism on their respective teams and throughout the League. Eldrick pointed out that 70 percent of NFL players were Black, yet there was an inexcusably low number of Black head coaches, senior-level front office leaders across the 32 teams, and executives at the League level. “Let’s commit to someday doing something about this specific problem,” Antar insisted. “I’ll remind us when it’s time.” Five years later, Antar brought his three friends together because, at the time of their FaceTime call, there were only five head coaches of color in the entire NFL. It was time.

Helmets of the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals sit in front of the Lombardi Trophy on February 09, 2022 on the SoFi Stadium campus in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The guys were especially troubled that the Dolphins had just unfairly fired Brian Flores, a Black man. During his three years as head coach, Miami had consecutive winning seasons for the first time in nearly two decades. Flores alleges in his lawsuit that Stephen Ross, owner of the Dolphins, attempted to pay him to lose games, which would have improved the team’s position in a future NFL Draft. Eldrick asked the others if they had seen the recent CNN interview in which Flores noted how Black head coaches are given fewer opportunities to succeed and less time than white head coaches to turn around losing teams they had inherited. Everyone nodded affirmatively—they had all seen it. 

They then talked about how the Flores case is just another reminder that the Rooney Rule, a nearly two-decades-old NFL policy that requires teams to interview at least one person of color for top executive positions and head coaching vacancies, is a joke. Each of them had seen screenshots of the text messages in which New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick accidentally informed Brian Flores three days before his interview with the New York Giants that Brian Daboll, a white coach, had already been selected for the job. Coincidentally, while the four friends were together on FaceTime, a memo was released in which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell deemed the league’s failure to hire more head coaches of color “unacceptable.” They all took a minute to read Goodell’s one-pager, then they discussed it. They were skeptical and doubtful that any serious change would come from it. “Please, let’s do something about what they did to Coach Flores,” Antar pleaded. These four Black players decided to take bold, public-facing action.

Pierre reminded the guys that they all were going to be in Los Angeles in a few days for Super Bowl LVI festivities. “Let’s get together in person and strategize,” he suggested. They all agreed. Kareem recommended that they invite Black athletes from other NFL teams whom they knew were also outraged about this issue. “No flex, but as you all know, I am friends with two of the world’s hottest rappers. Can I invite them too,” Antar asked. “They could help us by amplifying whatever actions we all decide to take during the L.A. meeting.” Obviously, everyone thought this idea was good. Eldrick’s younger brother is CEO of a strategic communications firm that specializes in large-scale, multidimensional national campaigns. They agreed to invite him, too.

When these four friends spontaneously decided to get together at the 2022 Super Bowl and to invite others, they expected that maybe a dozen or two other Black players would join them. Hundreds showed up. The consensus was easily reached on what to do about the shortage of Black head coaches across the league. This meeting was the birthplace of the “We Ain’t Playing” campaign, which was intended to forcefully communicate in a unified voice a collective sense of seriousness, outrage, and non-negotiable expectation for immediate and sustainable demographic change. 

The campaign title was also meant to powerfully communicate that hundreds of Black men across teams (plus any allies who wished to join them) would not be playing a 2022-23 season until the NFL meaningfully engaged them and retired Black players in collaboratively developing a sustainable strategy that would immediately accelerate the hiring of more Black head coaches. They made clear that Black men, not white male executives, would be driving these conversations and determining necessary actions. They also made clear that NFL and team executives would be held accountable for transparency and for the rigorous implementation of policies and practices that Black players identified. Along with celebrities, journalists, fans, and influencers, these players ensured the virality of their campaign through various forms of social, digital, and traditional media. It was everywhere. It ignited transformative change. It left NFL and team executives with no choice but to immediately fix this longstanding problem. 

Within a couple of years of the campaign launch, there were more than five NFL coaches. Significantly more were hired. Ultimately, the inclusive activism incited by four courageous players in partnership with hundreds of others forever changed Black representation at the highest levels in their league.

While fictitious, this story is an inspirational example of the immediate and transformative change that could occur if Black athletes and their supporters united to demand the hiring of significantly more Black head coaches in the NFL.

Dr. Shaun Harper is the Clifford and Betty Allen Professor at the University of Southern California. He also is founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. His 12 books include Scandals in College Sports. Please follow him on Twitter.

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