Opinion: Optics of NFL draft illuminate the NFL’s diversity problem

As an NFL lifer now positioned on the front lines of diversity efforts, Rod Graves watched the just-completed NFL Draft through a lens that was undoubtedly much different than that for many, if not most of the viewers that made up the record audience that consumed the pick-fest.

Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA), didn’t get hyped because a projected star receiver fell into the lap of some team or stunned that another franchise drafted a quarterback.

What struck Graves the most during the three-day draft was the makeup of the bulk of NFL decision-makers for one team after another. While an overwhelming majority of the players chosen in the draft were African-American – particularly during the first three rounds over the first two days – an almost exclusive percentage of the people doing the picking were white.

“To see where we are today where there are only a few (people of color) in the role of decision-makers is heartbreaking,” Graves, who previously spent 16 years with the Arizona Cardinals as GM or vice president of personnel, told USA TODAY Sports. “I want the league to do better, to live up to its potential.”

Rod Graves, right, with then Arizona Cardinals coach Kent Whisenhunt, left, and first-round draft pick Patrick Peterson during the 2011 NFL draft.

In the first round, 30 of the 32 picks were people of color, primarily African-American. Over the first three rounds, 97 of the 106 drafted were people of color. This contrasts with the fact that only two GMs (Miami’s Chris Grier and Cleveland’s Andrew Berry) and four head coaches from the NFL’s 32 teams are people of color. The imbalance in a league where more than 70% of the players are African-American is so striking, continuing to fuel efforts of Graves’ group and others to demand better opportunities for minorities.

Graves, 61, calls it “shameful” to see the league moving backward in an area that Commissioner Roger Goodell and other officials contend is part of their mission.

“We’ve been talking about this topic for so long,” said Graves, who joined the FPA in 2019 after four years as a senior executive at NFL headquarters. “When it comes to diversity, you ask, ‘Do enough of the owners care?’ The league has demonstrated that this is not a priority for them.”

The issue was illuminated during the virtual draft by sheer optics. Because the global coronavirus pandemic forced the NFL to scrap its intended show in Las Vegas and typical draft coverage, the NFL put cameras in the homes of every single general manager and head coach who conducted draft duties from their homes to comply with stay-at-home mandates across the nation.

The images provided some cute, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the children and wives (and in Bill Belichick’s case, the dog) attached to the men. It humanized the coaches and GMs to a degree that could never be reflected with the typical “war room” cameras of previous drafts.

Yet it also underscored the lack of diversity in key positions. Sure, there are some minorities behind the scenes in key roles who don’t make the final decisions, such as Will McClay, the Dallas Cowboys vice president of personnel praised by team owner Jerry Jones for his input into what could be one of the franchise’s best draft classes in years.

But the prevailing sentiment among many former, current and aspiring minorities in the pipeline to become head coaches and GMs is that opportunities are thwarted by a glass ceiling – still, in 2020, when the 101-year-old NFL, for example, has yet to have its first African-American team president.

“To me, it takes you back to a time in civil rights history when we were used for the production of business and didn’t have the opportunity to participate in management and decision-making roles,” Graves said. “I know this period is different than the ‘60s, but how much has really changed? We’re still grappling with issues of racial equality.”


Graves acknowledges the racial progress that is apparent on some levels. African-American quarterbacks were once denied opportunity. Now they are positioned to dominate like Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and league MVP Lamar Jackson. And while the league should be embarrassed by the scant number of minority head coaches, the pipeline is flush with assistants poised to advance.

But, he added, there’s growing unrest.

“There needs to be a lot more progress,” Graves said, alluding to head coaching and senior executive roles. “It used to be that blacks were ‘not smart enough’ to play quarterback. But look at what’s happened at that position. It’s in the best interest of the league as a brand and in terms of its reputation to do something about it.”

Issues that came to light earlier this offseason that involved disconnects between white head coaches and star African-American players raised questions about a cultural divide in the NFL. Houston’s Bill O’Brien and Detroit’s Matt Patricia were both alleged, in dealing with DeAndre Hopkins and Darius Slay, respectively, to have used language perceived to be culturally insensitive.

Those cases might be good exhibits supporting the need for more minorities in positions of authority.

Still, with NFL offseason operations (like those other sports leagues and businesses) unhinged by the national health crisis, topics such as diversity have not commanded much attention lately.

“But we can’t forget what’s going on behind the scenes,” Graves said. “These issues are still here and are not going away.”

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